The dream of a robotized restaurant is an old one, first focused on service, then on the kitchen. It culminated in a system that automated nearly the entire operation, both service and food preparation. Sounds futuristic, but the pinnacle of automation took place around 50 years ago.
If the first stage of automating the restaurant involved getting rid of servers, the second stage involved eliminating kitchen personnel while streamlining food preparation. Kitchen tasks were mechanized and geared toward producing predictable results with standardized portion sizes and speedy cooking.
The modern automated kitchens of the post-WWII period, were either (1) absent altogether in the case of machines vending frozen dinners, or (2) filled with equipment that needed only a few employees to trigger the slicing, mixing, pouring, and frying of a limited selection of burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. Gathering steam, by the 1960s automation took giant leaps in a number of high-volume drive-ins, the restaurant type that foreshadowed the fast food restaurant.
A fully automated push-button kitchen was available for lease or purchase in 1964, a product of the American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), a large diversified company that developed and produced, among many other things, bowling alley pin spotters, power boats, guided missiles, and nuclear reactors for Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.
Despite all the effort that went into its development, the fully automatic restaurant proved to be a failure. It was ridiculously expensive compared to how cheaply workers could be hired. And it broke down regularly, necessitating a well-paid, full-time technician on staff.
That full automation did not succeed should not obscure the fact that many restaurants today are highly automated compared to how they operated in the early 20th century. Plus in many chain restaurants tasks are so routinized and scripted that the humans who perform them might be considered quasi-robotized. As plans move ahead to raise hourly wages for workers in chain restaurants, it’s possible that restaurant automation will once again come into focus.
A sampling of projects:
1931 – Inventor H. Russell Brand’s automatic pancake machine is used at a Childs restaurant on West 34th St., NYC. Guests push a button on their table to start an automatic pancake machine that produces a stack of three pancakes which are, however, delivered by waiters. Possibly the earliest case of the automation of food preparation, nonetheless Childs removed the machines in 1938.
1939 – Meant to grow into a chain, a Roboshef restaurant with an automated cooker opens in San Francisco with the slogan, “Quality Food Cooked by Controlled Temperature, Not Temperament.” One employee can produce 120 meals per hour, producing perfectly timed steaks, seafood, fried potatoes, and biscuits.
1948 – With the debut of the WWII spinoff radarange that cooks instantly by molecule-agitating sound waves, Popular Science magazine imagines a restaurant of the future in which customers push buttons at their table that send frozen dinners to microwave ovens and then on conveyor belts to their tables.
1949 – In San Francisco, Ott’s, billed as the world’s biggest drive-in, turns out meals in 6 minutes on average in its modern kitchen in which a machine molds 800 hamburger patties an hour while another slices 1,000 buns in the same time.
1958 – Popular Mechanics magazine proclaims that a revolution has taken place in restaurants, due to infrared ray grills, electronic ovens, timing devices, precision slicing and cutting machines, patty extruders [pictured], compression steamers, soft-drink mixers, and other wonders. Quoting a restaurant consultant, the magazine declares, “Food service has become an exact science.”
1959 – According to the Washington Post, the nation’s three largest hamburger chains – then McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Golden Point – are set to revolutionize food vending through standardization, menu simplification, and “a good helping of automation.”
1961 – The increasing use of pre-portioned frozen food in restaurants heated with sophisticated high-speed fryers, pressure cookers, and electronic ovens shrinks preparation areas in kitchens even as freezers grow larger.
1961 – Stouffer’s opens two short-lived automated vending restaurants with frozen food. The roadside restaurants are paneled with recycled wood from old barns to avoid a sterile appearance. Customers are unexpectedly confused about how to heat their meals, requiring an attendant to help them. Schrafft’s [pictured] and White Tower’s Tower-O-Matic, NYC, also experiment with vending machine operations.
1962 – The first of Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mats opens, with coin-operated vending machines stocked with frozen dinners prepared off-site that are to be microwaved. The chain fails.
1963 – The first fully automated kitchen is installed at the La Fiesta Drive-In, in Levittown NY. A test case for “AMFare,” the drive-in uses a computer-driven order and billing system that launches refrigerated items on a 4-minute journey to be cooked and trayed “without any handling whatsoever by restaurant personnel.” Alas, a live worker is needed for matching completed orders with checks [pictured]. The AMF system is installed secretly in the basement while a false kitchen in back is added “to satisfy customers.”
1966 – AMFare testing complete, Jay’s Brookdale Restaurant in Minneapolis MN becomes the first fully automated restaurant in the nation. Second is the Mustang Drive-In in Lexington KY.
By 1968, when the system is being tested by the Breese Terrace Cafeteria at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it is employed by five restaurants. Then it seems to vanish.
© Jan Whitaker, 2015