How is it that the same culture that loves diners, with their friendly interchange between customers at a counter and cooks and servers on the other side, also idolizes the Automat, with food delivered in metal boxes that are filled by workers hidden from sight?
Through the years proponents of restaurant automation have argued that it’s more sanitary and efficient and results in lower prices for customers. Yet from the start — in the 19th century — automating restaurants was motivated primarily by a wish to eliminate servers.
That this was a desirable goal was never debated. Servers were depicted as annoying, manipulative pests who demanded tips and grew angry if they were too small. As long ago as 1885 a New York Times story hailed a newly invented “waiterless” system that permitted diners to select dishes from a card, place it in a receptacle that wafted it to the kitchen, and be served their food via an overhead railway system. The customer, said the story, “is not preyed upon by the thought that the menial is hovering over him, watching his every movement, and ready to ‘size him up’ in proportion to the amount of his order.” Whether this automation scheme ever materialized is something I have not been able to determine, but it presumably would have looked like this.
There were two basic types of automated restaurants: with one the patrons came to the food, as in the classic Horn & Hardart Automat, and with the other the food came to the patrons. In the latter case, it came in a container/cabinet that arrived (1) from wires overhead, (2) on a conveyor belt, or (3) up through the center of the table. The systems were inventors’ dream projects, resulting in many patents, though actually used in very few restaurants and even fewer successful restaurants. Most of the projects to automate service proved unsuccessful after the novelty wore off.
A sampling of the projects:
1895 – Exhibits of automated “push button” restaurants begin to appear at international fairs in Holland and Germany; soon they are found all over Germany.
1897 – Rumors start that automatic restaurant apparatus from Germany will be installed in Philadelphia’s business district enabling business men to eat more quickly
1899 – An advertisement appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer by a New York man who is seeking backers for an Automatic Lunch Room invented in France.
1901 – Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition is said to have an automatic lunch room.
1902 – A natural food company in Niagara Falls allegedly runs a restaurant with 600 tables served by “five hundred little electric cars” operated by a switchboard.
1902 – The Harcombe Restaurant Co. opens an Automat in New York City.
1907 – An automated quick lunch opens on F street in Washington DC where customers get sandwiches, pie, or coffee by depositing a coin and moving a lever.
1908 – An announcement is made that a waiterless restaurant with Assyrian decor will open in NY on Broadway between 43rd and 44th where guests will receive their meals from a dumbwaiter in the center of their table that will be serviced from a kitchen below.
1909 – A notice by a self-described “first-class man” appears in a Seattle paper seeking partners for a “first-class automatic lunch room.”
1912 – The first NYC Horn & Hardart Automat opens, in Times Square.
1913 – An article in Scientific American proposes that a corporation should be formed to run a central kitchen that can send food to homes throughout cities via pneumatic tubes.
1915 – At least seven saloons in Chicago’s Loop have “free lunch machines” in operation.
1917 – The Automat Company of New England runs three automats in Boston.
1917 – An article in The Hotel Monthly hails a newly invented “Cafetourner” in which food is delivered in “thoroughly clean,” sterilized steel boxes on conveyor belts.
Ca. 1917 – Bell Lunch operates three lunchrooms in New York City, at least one of which appears to be an automat.
1921 – The Automatic Lunch Corporation opens Automatic Lunch Room No. 1 in Detroit, with plans for more in other Michigan cities.
1922 – Horn & Hardart are operating two Automats and five Automat-Cafeterias in Chicago.
1925 – An exhibition in Seattle hosts a booth by the Quick Lunch Company with machines that deliver pie or sandwiches at the drop of a coin.
1926 – After a couple years in business the National Autometer Restaurant Corp. that ran two automatic restaurants in Washington DC declares bankruptcy.
1928 – A New York hotel exposition features a waiterless dining room with tables equipped with dumbwaiters set into tables.
1929 – Hall’s Mechanafe No. 1, which delivers food in cabinets on a conveyor belt, opens on Main Street in Boise ID. Along with the Horn & Hardart Automats in Philadelphia and New York it survives far longer than most restaurants with automatic service.
1930 – The first Merry-Go-Round café, in which a conveyor belt circulates along a counter, opens in Los Angeles.
1931 – The Hotel Warren in Worcester MA installs “auto-magic” tables where food comes up on a dumbwaiter set into the table. [pictured at top]
1933 – NYC’s Ye Eat Shoppe installs a conveyor belt that serves orders to patrons seated at the counter.
Beginning in the 1930s, but mainly after World War II in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the second stage of automating the restaurant began, focused on streamlining food preparation in the restaurant kitchen. By the end of this stage computers had changed the meaning of “automatic.”
As for the fabled Horn & Hardart Automats, when the nation’s original one closed in 1969, in Philadelphia, the new president of Horn & Hardart said the concept had reached its peak before and after WWII. With only ten left in business, he acknowledged, “They are not really automatic.” As a story in the Los Angeles Times said, the Automat had become “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2015