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Everything Old is New Again – The Resurgence of Automat-Style Service

When I was a lad, my father took the family to New York City for the World’s Fair. For the record, that would be the 1964-65 event – not the 1939–40 version…

On this trip, we saw all of the sites, and even climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty – which left quite an impression on a six year old. I have revisited most of these sites during other visits to the city; however, one of my favorite sites remains the Horn and Hardart Automat. The automat concept made its debut in Philadelphia in 1902 and hit NYC about 10 years later. Sadly, the last location discontinued operations in 1991.

The Horn and Hardart Automats were fashioned after a German concept, and were scattered around busy Manhattan. H&H Automats provided a different experience than all other food outlets – as they were well-lit, clean, and did not allow smoking. The automat was as much a social destination as a food outlet. They were a favorite place to meet and eat, or just hang out and read the paper without any pressure to purchase anything. The food and coffee were always hot and same-day fresh – much like the favored food outlets of today. What I remember most, was putting the nickel in the slot and getting warm cherry pie. I’ve been hooked on cherry pie ever since. This is an example of association, which I’ll expand on in a later post. All these years later I associate the food item (in this case, cherry pie) to an experience (visiting the Horn and Hardart Automats).

Fast forward to today – an emerging concept is, surprise, the automat! Instead of using nickels and turning shiny chrome knobs for selections, today’s patrons use PayPal and Chrome to select and purchase their selections. But it’s still the automat. Screen imagery allows the pickup windows to handle a variety of product types, and text alerts provide the code to their tasty selections. In both cases, the food mysteriously appears in the collection box, fresh and of good quality. Coffee (and now even wine) is available at self-service kiosks with just a click.

Though the concept looks a little different today, what both of these models have in common is a behind-the-scenes assembly line concept of meal delivery in a clean and casual environment. While this trend contradicts the research that says patrons like to see their meals prepared, it just goes to prove there are a variety of ways to serve the public. Today – as in the earlier automat model – the primary draw may be social, convenience, or the quest for something unique.

Next time you encounter the concept, pay close attention. There are substantial opportunities for Unified Brands to support this type of operation.

Click here for more information on early automats, or here for more information on today’s.

Enjoy the food!

Michael Williams

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