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Gallery: A Century of Automated Food Service

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Gallery: A Century of Automated Food Service
: Exactly 106 years ago, Frank Hardart and Joseph Horn opened the first automat restaurant in the United States, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia. It had no tables, no waiters and only a single counter with 15 stools. For the first time in American restaurant dining, customers served themselves. Although this idea was groundbreaking, the restaurant had two more killer features that would make it a success and help launch a fast-food nation: The meals were cheap and it was quick.
Unlike fast-food restaurants today, the original automat was an attractive and socially acceptable place to be and be seen. During the Depression, the automat also became an attractive value proposition: A plate of beans or macaroni and cheese cost only a few nickels.
Click through the gallery to see images from the first automats and their current emulators.

Left: In the first half of the 20th century, the Horn & Hardart Automat in Manhattan was a culinary landmark. Photo: HO/AP/Courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York
: Rich, poor, young and old -- practically everyone in New York ate at Horn & Hardart automats.
During its heyday, the automat fulfilled some of the most fervent expectations about American efficiency and ingenuity -- if we could build high-quality Fords through an assembly line format, why couldn't we do the same for food?
Photo: HO/AP/Courtesy The Museum of the City of New York/Berenice Abbot
: Customers would purchase a basic meal (such as sandwiches) through coin-operated machines. The windows hid a kitchen that would prepare food throughout the day. The novelty of inserting a few nickels, pulling the lever and sliding the clear window (usually sideways) to purchase a meal was an attraction in itself. Diners often found their food enveloped in cheap, waxy paper.
Photo: HO/AP/Courtesy The Museum of the City of New York
: A postcard of an automat at West 57th Street and 6th Avenue in New York.
Photo: HO/AP/Courtesy The Museum of the City of New York
: A customer buys a cup of coffee at what was then the last Horn & Hardart Automat eatery in midtown Manhattan, in this AP file photo dated June 8, 1987. Now a fading memory, in its mid-century heyday Horn & Hardart Automat served up lamb stew and pie to millions of New Yorkers who dropped a coin into a slot and opened a small glass door to fetch their food.
Photo: Warren Jorgensen, File/AP
: The first automat in the United States at 818-820 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.
[This image is in the public domain]
: The classic automat format returned to New York City in 2006, with the opening of the Bamn food automat in the East Village. Owners David Leong and Nobu X have added a little bit of Asian style to the experience, with Japanese beef sliders, and hot-pink lights. Just drop a few coins into the slot and you can get a burger, a pizza or even tasty pork buns. Bamn is open 24 hours a day.
Photo: Tina Fineberg/AP
: Convenience and supercheap prices are the biggest draw for Bamn. Most dishes run between $1.50 and $2.50, and according to most reviews (from the tough-to-please foodie crowd to regular Yankee-bleacher creatures), the food is surprisingly good. So how do they make sure the buns are constantly fresh and the slots always well stocked? A full, working, chef-led kitchen lies behind the wall of glass.
Photo: Tina Fineberg/AP
The original automat was a Swiss invention manufactured in Germany. Today, FEBO automats in Amsterdam are known for their highly caloric McKroket burgers, which are thick ragout or gravy covered in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried. Then there's the spicy Satékroket beef with peanut sauce -- "It's delicious!" (That's the FEBO slogan.) Mmm. Photo: Evert Elzinga/AP
: Baggers is a recently opened restaurant in Nurenburg, Germany, that serves its meals to customers through a winding steel rail system, getting rid of the need for waiters, or really, the need to talk to anyone while you eat.
So how do they do it? Through the wonderful magic of gravity, of course. After each meal is ordered on a touchscreen (where you can check your e-mail while you wait), the fully staffed kitchen on the second floor prepares the meal, covers it with a silver stainless plate cover and pushes it down along the rails, slowly careening it to your exact seat.
This technology not only looks cool, but saves the owners a lot on the man-hours of waiters waiting and people haggling over the tips.

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