What Are Automats? They May Be The Next Big Thing In The Restaurant World

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For introverts since the dawn of time, eating out has presented a set of problems — mainly, having to interact with other humans in order to get your hands on a simple turkey sandwich. For a brief time in the early 20th century, the invention of the automat took care of that with its waiter-free format. Fork over a nickel, turn a knob, pick up the food that magically appeared in the tiny compartment next to the slot, and voila! You just acquired lunch sans awkward eye contact and half-mumbled small talk. What more could a diner want?

If you find the prospect appealing, you're in luck. Decades after the rise of fast food put them out of business, automat-style restaurants may be poised for a comeback. Eatsa, a fully automated, San Francisco-based restaurant chain, announced this fall that it will scale back its physical retail locations to focus on "enabling other restaurants to use the eatsa [sic] platform." In other words, the chain is bringing its system to other established brands. According to the Chicago Tribune, the first to adopt the new format is Wow Bao, a fast casual Asian eatery based in Chicago.

For those who don't keep up with the restaurant industry, Eatsa first opened its doors in San Francisco in 2015. For being so high-tech, the concept is simple: Diners place an order on an iPad or the mobile app, and a team of back-of-house (and out of sight) kitchen staff prepares the food in the back. When it's ready, which should be within a few minutes, the meal appears in a glass cubby — much like the automats that were so popular in northeastern cities nearly a century ago. But in case you need a reminder that we live in 2017, Eatsa's cubbies are emblazoned with diners' individual names until the order is picked up.

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Although it was hailed as a revolutionary concept at the time, Eatsa hearkens back to the days of the automat, where customers retrieved food from what were essentially giant vending machines. Like Eatsa, dishes were prepared by workers hidden from view; diners put their own meals together by purchasing individual items, from salads to coffee cake. Originally a European concept, the first automat in the United States opened its doors in Philadelphia in 1902. Ten years later, the idea had proven popular enough that the company, Horn & Hardart, was able to open a location in Times Square. Given the fast-paced lifestyle New York is known for, it's no wonder the automat quickly caught on.

In their heyday, more than 40 automats operated in New York, and Horn & Hardart fed as many as 750,000 hungry customers each day. Automats became such an integral part of East Coast urban life that they were featured in songs like Irving Berlin's "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee."

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But the days of the automat were numbered. By the '50s, the influx of fast food restaurants like White Castle and McDonald's, combined with the inconvenience of changing out bills for coins, contributed to its decline. According to the New York Times, the last true automat closed its doors in 1991.

More than two decades later, though, Eatsa has given the automat a 21st century makeover. Rather than coins, diners pay using modern technology; instead of stewed tomatoes and coffee poured from a chrome dolphin head, they snack on quinoa bowls. Now that Eatsa is partnering with other chains, it's possible that the automat will return to urban life — or it may fizzle out once again. If you're curious to see what all the fuss is about, Wow Bao's first automated location will open in Chicago on Dec. 1.