The first fast food restaurants were automatons

Picture this: you’re hungry but don’t want to settle for a fast food burger. What you really want is a nice hot meal, something like meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans, a slice of pie and a hot cup of coffee. And, you want it NOW.

Rather than being a fantasy of a futuristic restaurant, it’s actually our story. Welcome to the automaton.

What was the automaton?

The automaton was a cross between a cafeteria and a vending machine. The first automaton, called Quisiana, opened at the Berlin Zoological Garden in 1895. Quisisana allowed customers to insert coins into a glass-encased kiosk, and they received hot sandwiches, cups of coffee, and even glasses of wine .

Quisiana in Berlin Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to two columnists of automatons, the interior of Quisiana was “a splendid dining room in the Art Nouveau style, richly fitted with mirrors, marble and stained glass”.

In 1902, two Philadelphia restaurateurs, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart, imported vending machine technology from Germany and opened the first American vending machine in Philadelphia. Horn & Hardart quickly became the largest American vending machine chain.

Premier Cor & Hardart's
Premier Cor & Hardart’s Source: Library Co. of Philadelphia/Wikimedia Commons

On July 2, 1912, Horn and Hardart opened their first automat location in New York’s Times Square. The newspaper advertisements they placed touted restaurants as “the new way to eat lunch.” Much like the Las Vegas buffets of today, diners loved being able to see all the endless possibilities of the automaton. Horn & Hardart offered over 400 dishes on its menu.

Once a diner had made their selection, they placed the required number of coins in a slot next to the dish, and once their payment was recorded, they could lift a hinged glass door and remove the item. During lunch, everyone – from white-collar businessmen to construction workers, from secretaries to celebrities – sat together in the automat’s communal dining room. Figures such as writer Walter Winchell and songwriter Irving Berlin have sung the restaurants’ praises.

As a tribute to Horn & Hardart’s coffee shop, Berlin composed the song “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”, which became Horn & Hardart’s official jingle. In one Paper from 1987 in The New York Timesthe playwright Neil Simon extolled the virtues of the automaton.

How an automaton worked
How an automaton worked Source: Horn and Hardart/Wikimedia Commons

What was happening behind the cubicle wall was dozens of workers cooking and cooking, others quickly filling empty cubicles, and still others washing dirty dishes. However, the only workers visible to customers were the so-called “nickel throwers”. These were women sitting in glass booths changing bills and larger coins into the nickels needed to operate the booth doors.

A resounding success

From 1912, the concept of the automaton really took off, in part due to the Spanish flu pandemic, which lasted from 1918 to 1920. At the height of their popularity in the 1950s, automata were as much a New York City tourist attraction as the Empire State Building. There were over 100 automatons in New York alone and over 50 in Philadelphia. Every day, more than 800,000 people ate at a Horn & Hardart, making it the largest restaurant chain in the world.

Part of the appeal of automatons was their low prices, which were achieved in part by eliminating servers. It was also popular with customers because they didn’t have to tip. According to the Free Lance-Star newspaper, by the late 1950s, vending machines were attracting 5 million customers a year, who flocked to restaurants in search of their favorite dishes. Automatons specialized in home-style comfort food, including baked beans, mac and cheese, and savory and sweet pies.

The quality of coffee from the automats was legendary, it was brewed every 20 minutes and only cost a penny. A huge slice of pie cost 15 cents.

The end of an era

During the 1950s, more and more Americans moved to the suburbs, and the vending machines became nearly empty by dinnertime. During the 1970s, food prices rose, which meant that more coins were needed to unlock the doors of magic cabins, at a time when bill acceptors were not common. Instead of going to the vending machine, customers flocked to fast food restaurants that offered more payment options.

New York’s last Horn & Hardart vending machine, located at Third Avenue and 42nd Street, closed in 1991, and the company sold most of its locations to Burger King franchisees. Today, all that remains of Horn & Hardart is a 35-foot-long section of food stalls from the first automaton, which is stored at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

The resurrection of the automaton

In 2006, a company called Bamn! opened a new automat in New York’s East Village, but it closed in 2009. In 2015, a San Francisco company called Eatsa opened six automated restaurants in California, New York and the District of Columbia. The restaurants offered iPad ordering, and every dish on its menu featured trendy quinoa.

Bam!  automaton
Bam! automaton Source: Nricardo/Wikimedia Commons

By July 2019, all of Eatsa’s restaurants had closed, but the company rebranded itself as Brightloom and partnered with Starbucks. Today, Brightloom sells automation technology, including ordering software, kiosks and mobile apps, to restaurants.

A company spokesperson wrote“Brightloom will license certain aspects of the [Starbuck’s] technology surrounding mobile ordering and rewards, offering a version of these on its own hardware and mobile platforms for other food companies to use. »

Smullers Automaton
Smullers Automaton Source: Willem90/Wikimedia Commons

In the Netherlands, the automaton never fell out of favor. The Dutch Automatique offers a variety of dishes, including frikandellen (a kind of minced meat hot dog) and croquettes, burgers and sandwiches. The best-known vending machine company is FEBO (pronounced fay-boh), which started opening vending machines in the Netherlands in the 1960s.

FEBO director Dennis de Borst attributed the restaurant’s success to the fact that “the Dutch are always on the move and often in a hurry”, leading to “the Dutch snack culture”, which Borst described as being characterized by “three basic elements: fast, accessible and affordable. “FEBO is famous for being open 24 hours a day, which makes it particularly popular with the late-night crowd.

Automatons in trains

In 1954, the first automatons on passenger trains were introduced on Pennsylvania Railroad routes between New York and Washington, DC. In 1962, automatons appeared on the Cambrian Coast Express, run by the Great Western Railway of the United Kingdom, and also in 1962, the Southern Pacific Railroad of the United States introduced automatic cars on its Coast Daylight and Sunset Limited trains .

In 1985, Amtrak converted four of its buffet cars to automatons, the last being in 2001 on Lake Country Limited. The Bodensee–Toggenburg Bahn of Switzerland introduced automatic cars in 1987.

A future for automatons

Today, the COVID pandemic has reignited interest in vending machines, which allow customers to access food without having to interact with restaurant staff. A new machine, Automat Kitchen, opened in Jersey City, New Jersey in early 2021. It offers comfort food such as pastrami sandwiches and chicken and meatball pie. Another automaton, the Brooklyn dumpling shoprecently opened in New York.

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