Automat Kitchen Revives The ‘Vending-Style’ Restaurant Format

Food - Restaurants

The automat — the self-service food kiosk that more closely resembles a vending machine than a traditional restaurant — was a midcentury New York staple, despite the model actually originating in Germany in 1895 and coming to America by way of Philadelphia. America’s first and most prominent automat chain, Horn & Hardart, boomed in the ’50s and ’60s. Now, thirty years after the final Horn & Hardart automat closed in 1991, a new automat hopes to revive the model for the 21st century. In Jersey City, New Jersey, Automat Kitchen features a gourmet take on comfort food, vended in cubbies and accessed with contactless payments.

“Simply put, it’s the safest and most convenient way to dine at the moment,” Joe Scutellaro, principal owner, told PYMNTS in an interview. “Time will always be our greatest and most-limited resource, and we originally created the Automat Kitchen concept with that in mind. Customers can order ahead and select the time they want their order to be ready, then walk in and immediately retrieve their food and be on their way if that’s what they want.”

Customers receive a code through their phones when their order is ready. The code opens their cubby that has been loaded with their order by kitchen employees on the other side of the cubby wall. Aside from a front-of-house employee available for help if need be, customers obtain their food with little to no human interaction, an advantage for contagion-conscious consumers.

Maybe This Time…

Though the automat format never fully went away — it has remained popular decade after decade in the Netherlands with the popular FEBO chain — attempted revivals in the United States have largely fallen flat. An automat that opened in New York’s East Village in 2006 closed after less than three years, and a West Coast attempt in 2015 with Northern California’s Eatsa did not fare much better, closing up shop with $24,000 of unpaid rent in 2019 and rebranding as a restaurant tech company.

When it comes to automat revivals, it seems American restauranteurs are a little like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Why should this attempt be successful where others have failed?

“The biggest place that other automat operations have fallen down is in the food offering,” Scutellaro said. “Our menu, which is a mix of comfort classics that have been reinvented, is diverse enough that we truly expect customers to visit multiple times per week — especially when you consider that we offer breakfast, lunch and dinner all day long. Plus, we feel our technology and brand will set us apart.”

Across the Hudson, the East Village is getting another chance at reviving the automat as well, albeit one less rooted in the automat’s culinary history, with the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop automat set to open in April, according to the shop’s Instagram.

A Fresh Take On A Stale Format

Though Automat Kitchen is in large part a tribute to its midcentury forebears and the food may be an upgrade, the technology certainly did not exist in 1950. Scutellaro noted: “For us, it’s about educating and introducing consumers to what’s changed from the automats of old. Our food is made-to-order, whereas the original automats had pre-made food. And in general, the ordering and pickup flow is something entirely new, so it takes a moment (or a trial) for people to really understand the intrinsic value of the experience.”

So far, the restaurant has stellar reviews across Yelp and Google. In fact, the only less-than-five-star rating across 14 reviews comes from a customer noting that a late delivery from DoorDash made the sandwich soggy — even that was a four-star review. In addition to enjoying the food, reviewers consistently found the format easy to use and COVID-safe.

Looking ahead, Scutellaro believes that the technology itself will be a valuable part of the business. He explained, “the big opportunity for us as a company is all of the different ways in which our patented technology can be used. Its utility goes well beyond our current restaurant footprint.”

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