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Fast Food Blast from the Past: The Rise and Fall of the Automat

“Fast” food.

Here in America, the food service industry serves food at the pace of the people eating it. Sit-down restaurants gave way to counter-service diners that were then bypassed for drive-through windows. Sure, all the aforementioned types of dining establishments still exist, but it goes without saying which of the three ultimately rose above the rest. Why? It addressed and fulfilled a relevant need: cheap food, served quickly.

Up until the 1900s, having food anyplace other than home meant a ‘sit-down’ meal at a restaurant. As cities grew taller, crowds larger, and the walking pace quicker, food needed to follow suit and get with the times. In rural, ‘small town’ America (where the working day was largely determined by when the sun rose and set) there wasn’t any need for food at such a pace. But in a bustling urban metropolis, it became a must.

Wouldn’t it make sense that, in the first decade of the 20th century, America would have vending machines to serve prepared food? It did. And with that, in 1902, the Automat was born in Philadelphia.

Fast food, c.1904.

Fast food, c.1904.

These machines, however, served prepared food. You’d drop nickels into the slot, turn a knob until a door unlocked, then removed your item from the machine (continually filled from the kitchen behind it). It may have been served by a machine, but it was made by a person. Recipes were cooked from scratch, using recipes they stored in safes (Colonel Sanders wasn’t the only restaurant owner keeping it on the DL). No stale, room-temperature potato chips, here, folks.

This was before color photography could be used on a menu, so you can imagine how appealing it would be to see that perfectly gooey bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese sitting behind the window (right before your eyes, like a Mac ‘n Cheese lobster tank!). Has your mouth ever started watering from reading a hoity-toity chef’s description on a menu? More likely than not it, was seeing the plates brought out to the table next to you that made you hungry. The visual appeal was carried through to the vending machines themselves, highly stylized, polished chrome works of art in the Art Deco style. It may have been cheap food, but it was presented with a high amount of style and thought.

You could eat your food – still hot – as soon as you removed it from the machine, and the instant gratification of the experience was unrivaled. Not even a whiz of a short-order cook could make something instantly, and with that, the popularity of the sit-down restaurant was trumped by the sheer convenience of the Automat. The quality was strictly maintained: coffee was disposed every two hours after it was made, and unsold food was taken to “day-old” stores for resale (instead of being re-heated and used again). It was inexpensive food, yes, but the quality did not suffer. The only thing cheap about this meal was the price.

Andy Warhol needed something to do when he wasn’t painting pantry items.

Andy Warhol needed something to do when he wasn’t painting pantry items.

Seating required no reservations, and specified no dress code: provided there was an open seat, you could sit at any table you wanted to. Entirely democratic and not at all discriminating, a street musician could sit alongside a stock broker and enjoy the exact same food. Without the need for table service, gratuity was unnecessary, and made the Automat accessible to all walks of life. They became such a large part of popular culture that even Andy Warhol frequented them. In their heyday, Automats were as common then as McDonald’s is, now.

So what became the downfall of what seems such a great institution?

The popularity and rise of the automobile: drive-ins and drive-through service rendered the need to walk inside a business unnecessary. Food temperature could be maintained under a heat lamp (or eventually microwaved) just as easily as it could be kept in a warm machine. The last Automat in New York City closed in 1991, much to my chagrin.

A company named “BAMN!” attempted to revitalize the Automat this past decade, but even that closed almost as soon as it opened. In an age of digital transactions and plastic card purchases, change has become irrelevant. As Russell Brand’s Arthur said, “Change! What I used to play with as a child!” The line was meant as a joke from a wealthy man to himself, but is ironic its unintended truth. No one is going to be carrying several dollars’-worth of change in his pockets. Even if a change machine was made available, I can’t imagine anyone going to an ATM, exchanging his Andy Jackson for only-God-knows-how-many-quarters, and then pumping them all in, one-by-one…for a corn dog?!?! I don’t know who would consider that convenient. If they updated machines to accept swiped cards and bumped phones, sure, you would simplify a potentially frustrating process, but you would also be removing a crucial component of the Automat to begin with. And with that said, we likely have seen the end of the Automat here in America.

But things were gained from the Automat’s existence.

Take the mall food court, for example: very similar to the layout of menu options. Instead of things like sandwiches and pies, now you can choose which type of cuisine you’d like, and take it into a public, open dining area.

It certainly upped the game of cafeterias, whose institutionalized food was no match for items made by people, and not machines.

And it definitely revolutionized the potential uses and capabilities of vending machines. Just the other week, a pizza-making machine was introduced into the market. Makes a fresh, hot pizza from scratch.

Sure sounds better than another bag of chips to me.

Ironically, as with most things, what isn’t popular here is still popular in parts of Europe. A company named “FEBO” in the Netherlands still successfully runs Automats across the country, serving things like fish croquettes. And you thought liking soccer sounded crazy.

Do you think this dying and possibly dead institution could ever thrive again in the United States? Would you enjoy the novelty of purchasing prepared food from a vending machine? What kinds of food would you like to see offered if you came across an Automat?

 Image credit to Babylon of Wales and Serious Eats.


Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.

Comments

  1. Kelsey

    This is such an interesting blog! I had never even heard of this thing before reading about it here. It’d kind of weird to picture in my head, and sounds almost like something you’d see in a cartoon. :P It would be kind of neat to still have one somewhere around here, but it’s understandable why it hasn’t really worked out.

    I definitely want some gooey mac and cheese now. :)

    • Eric

      Brings a whole new meaning to “Instant Mac ‘n Cheese.” Sure, you can buy the kind where you peel the top off, fill with water up to the line, and – after microwaving – stir cheese powder into, but that’s definitely sacrificing quality for convenience. This was the best of both worlds, but most of the benefits were for the consumer, and not the vendor. I agree, though…if for no other reason than for the sake of nostalgia, I’d love to see these come back in some shape or form. Thanks for the read, Kelsey! :)

  2. Bret Bonnet

    I’d live to give an Automat. I’m sure a Tuna sandwich would taste just lovely.

    • Eric

      They had ‘em, Bret. As far as comfort food goes, they’d pretty much whatever you could name within the range of standard American fare. If for nothing else but sheer variety, I wish they’d bring these back.

  3. Rachel

    It would be neat to see one of these things in person. Too bad they don’t exist anymore. :( But I can definitely see how they have influenced fast food places, mall cafeterias, and the like. Fascinating post, Eric — thanks for sharing! :)

    • Eric

      The influence was what kept me reading on the subject, so much so, I wound up wanting to write about it. These were cafeterias, yes, vending machines, yes, and fast food…all way, WAY before the idea becmae so mainstream you can’t drive a block from home without tripping over a fast food restaurant. Thanks for reading, Rachel!

  4. Amanda

    Cool post, Eric! =) I’m not sure I’d visit an automat often, but I’d try it out a few times for sure. It would be fun to try one out. It would get you some good fast food, without the attitude of places like Burger King. LOL I’d love to see what kind of variety they’d offer.

    • Eric

      Burger King? Attitude? :) I’ve had some sassy drive-through attendants before and – thanks to following my own advice from the ‘customer feedback’ post awhile back, scored a couple free value meals. So long as they plan on giving out free food with that attitude, well, works for me. :)

      You could feasibly do this with almost any kind of food, whether it be heated or refrigerated, and it has the potential for a ton of variety, or even a rotating menu, switching by the day. Who knows. Maybe someone will come along and finally figure out how this one translates into the 21st century. Say – to begin – accepting credit and debit cards instead of pocket change? :)

      Thanks for the read, Amanda!

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    I don’t know how I’d feel about an Automat. People seem to either want their food really fast, or they want to see the person make it. Though if you knew that real people are making the food, I can’t see why it wouldn’t work. It’d probably be faster than waiting for McDonald’s.

    It’d be interesting to see if they’d be popular if you could buy food with a credit card. I know that I buy more from vending machines when they accept credit cards. It’s so easy to swipe your card and get some candy – it’s be even better if you got a warm sandwich that way.

    • Eric

      “Swipable Service” actually is something I think is highly under-utilized here in America. Abroad, especially in Asia, the vending machine craze seems to take hold. Heck, there’re still AutoMats in some parts of Europe. I think, above all, it is a novelty. Sure. But if you had some legit cooks making homemade food, it’d have a heck of a better manu and selection than any McDonald’s. I think that’s where it has failed, here. People may want to receive their food quickly, but don’t necessarily want something that looks like it was made in the time it takes to swipe a credit card transaction. It they could remedy that, I think it’d have a market, especially in nostalgics.

  6. Jill Tooley

    The closest thing I’ve seen to an Automat was in a hospital, back when I was a kid. I remember going down to the cafeteria with my mom and being bummed that it was closed, but they had a food vending machine nearby instead. There were items like sandwiches, parfaits, and miscellaneous snacks that required refrigeration…and none of them looked particularly appetizing! I’d be nervous to eat a perishable product from a vending machine nowadays. You just never know. But back in the early 1900s, when it was served hot…that doesn’t sound so bad! :)

    Damn, now I want macaroni and cheese, too. In my defense, I guess it is close to lunchtime!

    Great post!

    • Eric

      Half of everything – well, probably more – we take from a grocery store shelf has an expiration date, and is riddled with preservatives, sodium, and God-only-knows-what-else they use. Sure, it has a shelf life, but that’s an easy fix. I do remember a story regarding the Automat in NYC, and how adamant the owner was about always having fresh-roast coffee, being brewed constantly throughout the day. The commitment to quality is a challenge, and when being a restauranteur is a challenge to begin with, it’s not necessarily one many people would take on. But, like I mentioned to Mandy, I wouldn’t mind it if fast food got a bit of a quality upgrade here in the States.

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