Automats Were First to Offer Fast Contactless Dining

Contactless dining for fast food began at the turn of the 20th century with the automat. Is it time for a comeback?

Imagine this: you're hungry but you don't want to settle for a fast-food hamburger. 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 some futuristic restaurant, it's actually old hat. Welcome to the automat.


The automat was a cross between a cafeteria and a vending machine. The first automat, called Quisiana, opened at the Berlin Zoological Garden in 1895, reports Interesting Engineering.


In 1902, two Philadelphia restaurateurs, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart, imported the vending machine technology from Germany and opened opened their first automat in New York's Times Square. Much like today's Las Vegas buffets, diners loved being able to view all of the automat's endless possibilities. Horn & Hardart's menu offered more than 400 tempting items.


Once a diner had made a selection, they would place the requisite number of coins into a slot next to the dish, and once their payment had registered, they could raise a hinged glass door and remove the item. During lunch, everyone sat together in the automat's communal dining room.


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


From 1912 on, the automat concept really took off, due in part to the Spanish Flu pandemic, which lasted from 1918 to 1920. At the height of their popularity during the 1950s, automats were as much of a New York City tourist attraction as the Empire State Building. There were over 100 automats in New York City alone. Every day, more than 800,000 people ate at a Horn & Hardart, making it the world’s largest restaurant chain. But times change...


New York City's last Horn & Hardart automat, located at Third Avenue and 42nd Street, closed in 1991, and the company sold most of their locations to Burger King franchisees. Today, all that is left of Horn & Hardart is a 35-foot-long section of food cubicles from the first automat, which is in storage at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

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