Originally, the machines in U.S. automats took only nickels. In the original format, a cashier would sit in a change booth in the center of the restaurant, behind a wide marble counter with five to eight rounded depressions in it. The diner would insert the required number of coins in a machine and then lift a window, which was hinged at the top, to remove the meal, which was generally wrapped in waxed paper. The machines were filled from the kitchen behind. All or most New York automats also had a cafeteria-style steam table where patrons could slide a tray along rails and choose foods, which were ladled out of steaming tureens.
Inspired by the Quisiana Automat in Berlin, the first automat in the U.S. was opened June 12, 1902, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart. The automat was brought to New York City in 1912 and gradually became part of popular culture in northern industrial cities. Horn & Hardart was the most prominent automat chain.
In its heyday, recipes were kept in a safe, and described how to place the food on the plate as well as how to make it. The automats were popular with a wide variety of patrons, including Walter Winchell, Irving Berlin and other celebrities of the era. The New York automats were popular with out of work songwriters and actors. Playwright Neil Simon called automats "the Maxim's of the disenfranchised" in a 1987 article.
The format was threatened by the arrival of fast food, served over the counter and with more payment flexibility than traditional Automats, in the Automats' core urban markets in the 1970s; their remaining appeal was strictly nostalgic. Another contributing factor to their demise was inflation of the 1970s, making the food too expensive to be bought conveniently with coins, in a time before bill acceptors commonly appeared on vending equipment.
At one time there were 40 Horn & Hardart automats in New York City alone. The last one closed in 1991. Horn and Hardart converted most of its New York City locations to Burger Kings. At the time, the quality of the food was described by some customers as on the decline.
Another form of the automat was used on some passenger trains, the last United States example being an automat car on Amtrak's short-lived Lake Country Limited service to Janesville, Wisconsin, in 2001. These were limited by mechanical problems, since the machines were not intended for the bumpy ride on the rails, and state laws that prohibited alcoholic beverages from being sold by a machine.
In Japan, in addition to regular vending machines which sell prepared food, many restaurants also use food ticket machines (食券機, shokkenki), where one purchases a meal ticket from a vending machine, then presents the ticket to a server, who then prepares and serves the meal. (See Wikipedia in Japanese for an example.)
The Dutch FEBO stores provide a variety of burgers, sandwiches, frikandellen and croquettes in vending machines that are back-loaded from a kitchen. Their automat is called automatiek. FEBO snack bars sell various hot, deep fried snacks. These outlets are open 24 hours, and are popular with locals, and those leaving clubs and bars late at night.
- Claire Lui "Restaurant: The Automat Is Back," American Heritage, November/December 2006.
- "Horn & Hardart Automat, 968 6th Ave. between 35th & 36th Sts. (1986)", 36th Street, New York City Signs -- 14th to 42nd Street.
- Barron, James (April 11, 1991). "Last Automat Closes, Its Era Long Gone". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-07-16.
- "New York's Last Automat Closes". Associated Press. April 11, 1991. Retrieved 2009-07-16.
- Matthews, Karen (2006-08-28). "Updated Automat to open in New York City". Associated Press. Retrieved 2006-08-28.
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