The nature of the workday lunch is ever-evolving. Long gone are the days of lingering over a full meal and a cocktail with colleagues during the noon hour. For today’s urban workforce, there are hundreds of options to choose from when lunchtime rolls around. And whether ordering from a mobile takeout app or running down to the office cafeteria, the emphasis is on speed.
To better service busy lunch crowds, one restaurant concept is making a modest comeback, offering an innovative lunch experience that harkens to the past: the automat. This “high-tech eatery” concept, which famously swept the New York City dining scene in the early 20th century, is back, with a twist.
Thanks to Eatsa, a San Francisco-based fast-casual restaurant chain, the dining concept has been ever so slightly remodeled to serve today’s consumers. With digital kiosks that allow customers to select their meal, make modifications and swipe a credit card before their order appears in one of several locker-like cubbies, the concept seems novel. In reality, automats have a long history that dates back as early as 1902.
“In the old automats, you’d go in and see a wall of compartments. You could look at the food, put your coins in and take out the food. There were people behind whom you didn’t really see, but when the compartment emptied they filled it,” explains Laura Shapiro, culinary historian. “But that wasn’t the whole restaurant.”
Horn and Hardart’s automats, inspired by similar concepts throughout Europe in the late 19th century, started popping up along the East Coast; by 1918, there were close to 50 automats between Philadelphia and New York, with a few eventually in Boston. Customers could enter a Horn and Hardart restaurant and either pick up food at the cafeteria line, or scope out the automat’s section of freshly prepared food behind clear doors—all available for a couple of nickels.
“The magical quality was a big part of [the automat’s] success and so was the extremely simple fact that you got very good quality food for amazingly low prices, and the surroundings were clean and pleasant. It’s a combination that even today you can hardly find,” says Shapiro. “Anybody could go there—working women could go by themselves, foreigners, people who felt lost in New York, older people could go and sit there, it was an easy place to dine.”
But by the 1950s, the automat model was on the decline. People started moving out of cities and to the suburbs, office buildings began installing their own cafeterias and Horn and Hardart could no longer keep up with rising prices. Most notably, they raised the price of their famous coffee (it was freshly brewed and served for only a nickel a cup) and customers were furious. Sales plummeted and continued to fall, as prices rose and quality lessened.
In April of 1991, long after the rise of the power lunch, the country’s last automat closed its doors, marking the end of an era.
Since then, the model has existed in various forms. Paris’ Au Bout du Champ shops offer fresh, organic produce behind compartment doors. In Italy, customers can order a fresh pizza from an upgraded vending machine. But few come as close to replicating the automat of old as Eatsa does, seamlessly integrating modern technology, convenience and nostalgia.
Though lunchtime trends tend to come and go, Shapiro says there’s one factor that will determine the model’s success: “Speed is such a dramatic part of lunch in New York, even more so than it was in 1912. During the New York workday, it was, and is, a big premium to be able to get lunch quickly. So if these new automats are fast and turning out decent food, people will be interested in the idea.”