The Rise and Fall and Rise (and Fall and Rise and Fall, etc.) of the Automat

By Gordon Hopkins

So it is the day after Thanksgiving and in all probability you are slowly recovering from a food coma, resulting from the overindulging even the most health-conscious do once every fourth Thursday in November. You are, therefore, probably not in the mood for a column on food, even if turkey and cranberries aren’t mentioned at all.
Alas, whenever I sit down to write one of these things, 99 times out of 100, it will be about whatever happens to be floating around in my head when my fingers hit the keys. So, I’m afraid you are going to be subject to one after all. Or not, depending on how you look at it. This is really a column about a food-delivery system, rather than about food, itself.
Weirdly, today I found myself thinking about automats.
For those of you not in the know, an automat was (and is) a kind of fast food restaurant where customers bought their food from vending machines. I don’t mean like the vending machines where you buy a can of pop or a candy bar. These vending machines served freshly made food cooked by actual cooks. In a typical automat, there would be a wall of tiny glass doors. Each of those glass doors opened (with the deposit of a few coins, of course) to a slice of pie or a sandwich or other such goodies.
Few customers bought just one thing. Most people, went to automats for a full meal.
On one side of that wall were tables and chairs and napkins and customers eating. On the other, a full kitchen with a staff quickly slapping together sandwiches and slopping soup into bowls to replenish the supply of food in that wall of little glass doors.
Though they’d been around in Europe for a few years, the first automat in the U.S. opened on June 12, 1902, in Philadelphia. The name, Horn & Hardart, didn’t exactly scream fine dining. Actually, it sounds more like a law firm, and a disreputable one at that. They were quite popular, though, in big, bustling cities where workers of all stripes needed to grab a quick lunch before heading back to the office or job site.
Were there automats in Nebraska? I suppose there must have been, but I couldn’t say for sure. I certainly have no memory of ever eating at one in Omaha. I grew up in the seventies and that may have been part of the problem. Those were also the years that other forms of fast food (McDonald’s, Burger King, et al.) began to really dominate the “quick and easy lunch” market.
Periodically, someone tries to revive the automat concept every few years, just like Madonna’s career. It always fails, just like Madonna’s career. Both quaintly futuristic and quaintly retro at the same time, they naturally appeal to those afflicted with a terminal case of nostalgia.
So automats are becoming a thing once again. This time, the pandemic is getting the credit/blame. A dining experience with no human interaction seems tailor made for a world with an aggressive, contagious disease.
Will it last? My guess is not, but who can really say for sure?
One last note. I understood the concept at a young age, despite never having eaten at an automat in my life. I recall, with uncharacteristic clarity, a “Scrooge McDuck” coloring book I had at a young age, in which Uncle Scrooge took Huey, Dewey and Louie to an automat. I remember it vividly, not because the concept itself was so memorable, but because my rotten brother colored it in. It was my coloring book, after all. Plus, he colored the duck triplets’ clothes the wrong color. He didn’t even use crayons! He used black and red pens. I was, and still am, absolutely furious!!!!!
Okay, I am probably way more upset about this than I ought to be. Holding onto childhood grudges for several decades probably isn’t too healthy.
Anyway, Happy Day-After-Thanksgiving, and enjoy your nap.


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