Will 2020 Mark the Rebirth of the Automat?

The throwback restaurant concept could solve uniquely modern challenges.

Photo: ClassicStock / Getty

Before there were fast food jingles on TV and drive-thrus seemingly on every corner, there was the automat. In the first half of the 20th century, this system of vending hot meals to diners through a series of glass lockers seemed like the wave of the future. But over the past 40 or so years, automats have existed as little more than dated literary references.

But with restaurants still struggling to survive amid a pandemic that's forced them to both drastically scale back and overhaul their operations, there are some early signs that automats could be positioned for an unexpected comeback. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that two automats, one in Manhattan and another across the Hudson River in Jersey City, should be opening up before the end of 2020.

In the case of Jersey City's Automat Kitchen, the pandemic didn't birth the idea for proprietor Joe Scutellaro. In fact, it pushed back its scheduled opening from April to December. "In the Covid-19 environment, it's actually the right concept," he told the Journal. "We didn't go into this anticipating a pandemic, but here we are."

Seemingly taking its cues from automats of the past, the concept is built around classic comfort foods like pastrami sandwiches and chicken-and-dumplings pot pie, all of which customers will pick up from cubbies without any contact with staff. Obviously, the advent of the smartphone will make for a more streamlined experience. At Automat Kitchen, customers can order in advance online and unlock the cubby with a unique code once the food's ready (usually 5 to 7 minutes after an order comes in, Scutellaro tells the Journal).

In other ways, these early reimaginings of the automat are unique products of their current circumstances. In Manhattan, the somewhat-ironically named Brooklyn Dumpling Shop will deploy safety and sanitation measures like UV light for killing germs and a sanitation mist to clean up food cubbies between orders, as well as contactless kiosks that can detect your fingers without a tap. On top of that, it'll feature a kitchen staff consisting mostly of robots, with one or two staff members on hand to make sure they're deep frying and flipping dumplings correctly.

As Brooklyn Dumping Shop owner Stratis Morfogen observes, it's perhaps fitting that 2020 could see the rebirth of the automat. While the concept made its American debut in 1902, the Spanish Flu, which ended in 1920, played a sizable role in expanding the automat's footprint across the US.

"The timing is eerily similar," Morfogen told the Journal. "A century later, and I'm doing the same thing."

While a San Francisco chain called Eatsa toyed with the automat format in 2016 only to close up operations a year later, restaurant biz experts seem to believe the automat is posed for a comeback. In fact, the Journal notes that restaurant franchise development company Fransmart has already struck a deal to open 500 Brooklyn Dumpling Shops over the next decade, giving Morfogen $40,000 for each, plus 5% in royalties.

So is the Automat here to stay, or is it just another fad? It's far too early to tell, but the ability to introduce easy automation and offer relatively contactless service suggests the idea has legs even after a Covid-19 vaccine makes life a little easier for restaurants. Someday soon, we might be asking ourselves what kind of tip is appropriate to leave for food retrieved from a locker.

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