Revived Automats Provide Safer Food Experience

Northeast food providers put a modern twist on an old concept.

April 06, 2021

Automat Foodservice

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Originally introduced in the United States in 1902 and a restaurant phenomenon of the 1950s, automats are being revived in a high-tech format to help diners avoid unnecessary contact with others, reports Business Insider.

Ask your mom or granddad about mid-century automats, the self-service vending machines for hot or cold meals. The customer inserted coins into the machine, then opened a window to remove a meal. Now, a New Jersey restaurant, Automat Kitchen, which opened earlier this year, wants to revive the automat using modern technology and providing high-quality food.

The original automats typically sold pre-made food, but Automat Kitchen makes its food to order. Chefs place the completed meal in one of the restaurant's 20 lockers by opening it from the back. Customers can order in advance via Automat Kitchen's website or on its app. On site, they can also order with a QR code. When the order is ready, the customer receives a texted code, which they use to open the locker from the front. Alternatively, customers can also reply to the text message with the word "open" to gain entrance, making the experience entirely touch-free.

Screens above the lockers show the status of each order, and when an order is ready, the locker lights up. The customer’s receipt is automatically emailed to them after the transaction. Of course, customers may pay with cash, but most use their phones to get the full experience.

The restaurant also provides delivery via DoorDash. While the delivery drivers don’t currently pick up the orders from the lockers, the owners are working with DoorDash to integrate delivery orders into the locker system.

Joe Scutellaro, the restaurant’s principal owner, has worked on the concept for well over 10 years. He has fond memories of visiting New York City automats as a child in the 1960s, and wanted to recreate his own automat, but with an updated look, experience and menu.

Some insiders believe automats have the potential to halve foodservice labor costs with both front- and back-of-house automation. And Automat Kitchen isn’t the only restaurant taking on the trend. Another restaurant chain, Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, is rolling out new automats as well in 24-hour locations that are set to open this spring. The shops will range in size from 500 to 1,000 square feet, and the lockers will light up in blue for chilled items or red for hot to-go orders. Customers will also control their orders using their phone similar to Automat Kitchen’s.

Another retailer, FEBO, spotlighted during NACS’ 2019 Market Tour Europe in Amsterdam, is a Dutch chain featuring automat food establishments. Eatsa, later rebranded as Brightloom, is quinoa-based foodservice retailer also incoroporating the automat format that grew to six locations between 2015 and 2019.

Read how foodservice equipment manufacturers are working to alleviate food-safety concerns in “Equipped for Success” in the February 2021 issue of NACS Magazine.

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