Imagine if a freshly made, quality meal was always a turn of a knob away. No contact, no waiting. Sounds like a pandemic fighting pipe dream but this was reality for millions of people during the "heyday" of automat restaurants from the 1920's to the 1970's. Yup, 100 years ago.
Let's take a step back. "Automat" machine is short for automatic waiter, a machine used to display and vend freshly cooked meals. These machines lined the walls of the original waiter-less restaurants, widely seen as the first fast food establishments. That's right, the plot twist of "fast food" is that it wasn't always the low quality choices we know today. Behind each automat wall was a full on kitchen of chefs marinating, basting, braising and sautéing fresh ingredients to a high culinary standard. Chefs monitored the lockers all day, quickly replenishing slots with a freshly cooked meal as needed. The largest and most successful of these automat restaurants was Horn and Hardart's, which at one point had over 100 locations serving 800,000 people every single day. In fact, they were the largest restaurant chain in the world at the time.
Ultimately, technology failed the automats and they were edged out at a pivotal time when modern fast food business models were in full expansion mode. The last of those automat restaurants closed in 1991, denying those of us born after then the opportunity to experience automat dining. For shame. High quality fast food was lost, and the rest, perhaps unfortunately, was history.
But worry not! Today there's opportunities to make automat restaurants even better than before by applying new tweaks, values and innovations to the process. Actually that's what we do at The Automat. After all it's 2021, no reason we should be compromising on convenience or food quality, when we can have both.
Automats today can use solutions like contactless payment readers to allow the flexibility to pay with debit/credit, digital wallets, smartphone wallet, smartwatches, app payments and more. A simple tap is all it takes to access your ready to eat meal, instantly. We can implement apps to allow preordering or provide savings instantly to thousands of people. There are automats that can control temperature much more precisely now. Setting exact temperatures to both hot or cold makes sure high quality meals stay that way until a guest is ready to eat. Some newer automats use touchscreen windows and kiosks to add a layer of personalized interaction for the customer's experience. And that's just the tip of the foodtech iceberg. Oh, how times have changed...but also...not changed.
Already there are a few companies, like us here, reimagining automat restaurants and exploring the different benefits that could come with them. Shortening or even eliminating customer wait times, providing good food quickly, making the most of our short meal times. No contact, no wait, artisan quality dining could be the future... but technology is not enough. We will have to be conscious of the communities we serve and create our infrastructure in a way that reflects their needs and values. Automats and the technology we apply could provide a blank canvas to paint a new narrative of "fast food "ecosystems" and the recipe for restaurant success. But, it's up to us to build it.