Ghost kitchens had their time to shine. As talk of vaccines begins to circulate, people are eager to have dining experiences again, not delivery that just as well could have spawned from the ether. But the process of vaccinating the masses has been slow (I, a grocery store worker, received my 2nd dose about 2 weeks ago, but for many the vaccines remain unobtainable), so we need something in the interim.
Enter: the Automat.
For those of you without an overabundance of irrelevant food history knowledge, automats were, in short, an early predecessor to fast food that were wildly popular in the first half of the 20th century. In long, they were a cafeteria-style restaurant consisting of walls of coin-operated compartments that workers from the other side of the wall would fill with different foods. Insert coin, receive ham. A culinary gachapon, if you will (just without, y’know, the surprise element). The format died out in the 1960s and 70s as fast food became more widespread and cities emptied out during the white flight, with the last automats sustaining themselves purely on nostalgia, even as the buying power of coins (or lack thereof) made them completely obsolete.
Don’t act like you’re above eating premade food. Don’t pretend you haven’t been aching to go to your favorite conveyor belt sushi place and watch those little plates parade in circles for who knows how long. Is this really any different?
Why do I think now is the time to bring them back? Because, in theory, there isn’t a single human interaction to be had in the automat. Sure, the original automats did usually have a cashier, but they were typically just there to make change. With credit cards and mobile payment options, there’s no need for any front of the house staff at all, save for maybe someone to wipe down tables, if there are any to begin with. Even the most agoraphobic diner can get in and out without having a single person breathe on them.
And apparently I’m not alone in thinking this. Apparently, several different companies across the U.S. have been trying to bring back automats for most of the 2000s. But these all sort of petered out, as they were being fueled by nostalgia alone. But I believe that the current conditions of the restaurant industry have created a perfect storm for this to truly see a comeback. I’m not just talking about the pandemic: many restaurants off all kinds (even, or perhaps especially fast food) are having a hard time finding workers who are willing to put up with all the shitty conditions of the job, the equally shitty pay, AND having to deal with customers that seem to actively be trying to kill them. A restaurant where the whole point is that you don’t have to talk to the customers may be pretty appealing to said workers. Furthermore, many cities across the nation are investing heavily in urban renewal projects (y’know, to combat that white flight thing I mentioned earlier?), which could help incentivise potential automateurs.
And the key to bringing automat technology into the 21st century? Little Caesars.
In 2018 Little Caesars unveiled their latest attempt to stay relevant in the big-chain pizza-game while also sticking to their Hot ‘n Ready core competency: The Pizza Portal. You place your order on the app, you type a PIN into a touchpad, and the corresponding locker containing your order opens.
(As it turns out, I’ve been sitting on the draft of this for so long that someone’s already done just this. Automat Kitchen in Jersey City opened in February, doing basically everything I just described… wait, Jersey City? Dammit, I was just there…)
“Wait, how is this any better than normal mobile ordering with a pick up shelf? We already have that?” Oh, you sweet summer child, don’t you understand? The whole point of bringing back the automat is the security of having your food kept behind a little door, safe from the prying eyes and unwashed fingers of the masses.
Are there bugs to work out? Of course. The start-up costs of a wall of smart, temperature-controlled holding cases would be tremendous. Touchscreens and door handles would have to be sanitized regularly, although the former could be negated by the use of RFDI/NCF/another-combination-of-letters-I-don’t-totally-understand readers for hands-free service. Customers may be skeptical of paying for food that they can’t clearly see, or want to return it for a variety of trivial reasons after purchasing. Certain foods just don’t hold up to a hot-hold for very long. And will people still want to go once the pandemic has officially run its course?
On second thought, this is all starting to sound like that episode of Always Sunny where Dennis tries to convince everyone how great the app-powered Paddy’s Wagon is, but then just ends up holding the confused customers at gunpoint and dropping them off in the middle of the woods somewhere. But if there’s some tech start-up somewhere that’s willing to do this to other tech start-up bros, then that’s what they deserve.