High-tech vending machine cafeterias are back. Meet (or welcome back) the automat

Jim Beckerman
NorthJersey.com

The automat is back.

Big news! Provided you're old enough to know it had ever left.

What's an automat? For anyone born after 1991 — when the last one in New York closed its doors — the automat was a kind of vending-machine cafeteria. 

Inside was a wall of windows: hundreds of little compartments, each with a delicious slice of cherry pie or a tempting beef stew nestled within. You'd pop your quarter in the slot, turn the knob, and — pop! — the window would open, and there would be lunch. 

The Horn & Hardart automat was an urban institution

Now, the automat has returned. But returned, like the new "light rail" trolley cars or the new digital cameras, as a high-tech version of itself.

At Automat Kitchen in Jersey City, you pay on your iPhone, or on an in-store kiosk, rather than by inserting a coin.

You open the window by punching in an access code, rather than turning a knob. And the macaroni and cheese you pull out of the compartment is garnished with scallion, rather than — as in the old days — ornamented with little flecks of tomato.

We are old enough to remember the automat.

"I think there were a lot of conversations early on, when this concept was in its infancy, about how much we should or shouldn't lean into the history of the automat," said Steve Scutellaro, 34, head of technology and marketing for Automat Kitchen, which opened its first restaurant in the Newport section of Jersey City in January. They plan to open others.

Joe Scutellaro, one of the co-founders, of Automat Kitchen, poses with a grain bowl, in Jersey City. Tuesday, April 6, 2021

"This is an explicit acknowledgement of the original automat," said Scutellaro, who conceived the restaurant with his 60-year-old father Joe. He, too, remembers the old Horn & Hardart restaurants of a generation ago.

"I'm trying to keep true to the tradition as much as I can," said Joe, CEO of the company. "Steve is trying to make sure it's cutting-edge and we're hitting the millennials."

Other automat-style venues are to open soon in Brooklyn, Newark, and Montclair, and elsewhere.

"The convenience for the consumer is obvious," said Stratis Morfogen, CEO and founder of Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, opening next month with its own proprietary vending machines. "The consumer controls the whole ordering process."

Back to the future

To the young, the automat will be just one more high-tech marvel to take in stride. To their grandparents, it will be a blast from the past.

For any tri-state resident over 50, the automat conjures up a different New York: a city of Checker cabs and elevated trains and hatbands, of vanished department stores like Gimbels and Bonwit Teller, a city in which the Horn & Hardart automat was a crossroads of humanity. 

"Said the Technocrat, to the Plutocrat, To the Autocrat, and the Democrat, Let's all go eat at the Automat," ran a little poem in the New York Evening Sun in 1933, the height of the Depression.

Pie -- all kinds! -- to go were a Horn & Hardart specialty

"It was a place where everybody and anybody could come," Steve Scutellaro said. "Famous people, blue collar workers, could all come and enjoy a meal at the automat. There's something pretty cool about that."

The automat figured in Edward Hopper paintings, Hollywood movies, popular songs, Broadway plays, New Yorker cartoons. 

 A kiss "may be grand," sang Marilyn Monroe in "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," but it "won't help you at the automat."  A "Concerto for Horn & Hardart" was one of the faux compositions of the faux composer P.D.Q. Bach — creation of humorist Peter Schickele. Who didn't go to the automat?.

Food is prepared at Automat Kitchen, in Jersey City. Tuesday, April 6, 2021

"I grew up in Hoboken, and when I was young, my sister and I used to go to New York with my grandmother, and we'd always go to the automat," said Joe Scutellaro said. "It just made an impression on me. The whole feel, the look of it, the fact that you put your money in a slot and you turn the knob and grab your own food. I always had an affinity for it."

Memories:At Loew's Jersey Theatre, ushers were spectacular. This 95-year-old brings it all back

Finding that special ingredient:12 specialty markets in North Jersey that offer hard-to-find items from around the globe

Vintage:Remember these iconic vending machines at New Jersey Turnpike rest stops?

To those with old memories, the automat is all about nostalgia — about a bygone world of twenty-cent subway tokens and Orange Julius stands.

Which is ironic. Because when the automat was introduced in Germany in 1895, it was considered the restaurant of tomorrow.

The mechanized food dispenser (a Berlin company, Automat GmbH, created the patented coin-machines used by Horn & Hardart), the sleek steel décor, was mind-blowing to people in the early 20th century. "It was for the time a beautiful, futuristic art deco experience," Steve Scutellaro said.

The word "automat" itself was pure science-fiction. It, or variants of it, are still used in many countries to mean robot. When "2001: A Space Odyssey" opened in the Soviet Union in 1968, Pravda described the plot this way: "Cosmonauts of the Twenty First Century are flying toward distant stars under the command of an automat named HAL 9000." 

Strange parallel

The first of the U.S. Horn & Hardart automats, named for restaurateurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, opened in Philadelphia in 1902; New York got its first one in 1912. But it was in the 1920s that they really took off. The reason is interesting, in light of current circumstances. It was because of the 1918 flu pandemic.

"It got big traction after the Spanish Flu," Morfogen said. "People were afraid. They didn't want anybody touching their food. One hundred years later we're in the same predicament."

That's one reason he sees an opportunity now. People want a touch-free food experience. Though, Morfogen stresses, he began working on Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, on 1st Ave, long before the pandemic. "We created this in 2018, and we were supposed to open in March 2020 — and obviously COVID hit," he said.

Stratis Morfogen, Brooklyn Dumpling Shop

His dumpling dispensary, now set to open in early May, will offer 32 varieties of machine-vended dumplings, based on popular sandwich flavors: pastrami, peanut butter and jelly, and so on. There are plans for as many as 65 more franchises in the tri-state area, including — starting late in 2021 — locations in Hoboken, Montclair and Newark. As an economic model, it can't be beat.

"The automat wipes out the cashier, the counter people," he said. "You need a very limited staff. You have a smaller footprint."

And the automat concept is now spreading, beyond restaurants, to other forms of food retail — a process that has been accelerated by the quarantine.

"Before COVID, it was going that way anyway," said Joshua Applestone, founder and CEO of Applestone Meat Co., an automat butcher shop with machines in Stone Ridge, Hudson, and Eastchester, New York. They've been doing business this way since 2015.

"Contactless sales are going to be a big thing," he said. "They already are."

Each of the Applestone machines has 130 compartments, where you can get everything from sausage to bacon to sirloin steak. And you can get them absolutely any time. Their machines are available 24/7.  "We said, 'Take the locks out of the doors,' "  Applestone said. " 'We're done locking the door.' " 

Applestone Meat Company vending machine. They have stores in Stone Ridge, Hudson, and Eastchester New York.

We are now, he says, an all-hours society — used to getting the stuff we want when we want it. That's something vending machines are uniquely adapted to. "We don't live in a 9 to 5 world anymore," Applestone said.

A protege of Applestone, Kevin McCann, began to do the same thing in his butcher shop in Rochester N.Y., when COVID hit.

"This was a no-brainer," said McCann, owner and head butcher of McCann's Local Meats. "People were able to shop during off-hours, and keep themselves distanced and safe."

At his machines, everything from ground beef at $9 a pound to a ribeye steak for $80 is available — at 4 in the morning, if that's when you want it. Also available: "meat machine" t-shirts.

"Those are for sale in the meat machines," he said. "Meta as that sounds."

This kind of shopping experience — exotic as it might seem to us — is utterly commonplace in countries like Japan, where you can get raw eggs, sushi, flying fish soup and live rhinoceros beetles in vending machines.

Baguettes in France, mashed potatoes in Singapore, hamburgers in Amsterdam, are all dispensed automatically. A company in Dubai makes "Let's Pizza" vending machines. Americans have also been getting into the act. A salad machine, "Sally the Salad Robot," is made by a company called Chowbotics, in partnership with Doordash, in — where else? — California.

"It's a beautiful concept; I think about it all the time," Applestone said. "Asia has these pickup lockers all over the place. It's fascinating we're just getting it now."

Decline and fall

Perhaps the new automats, with their cashless technology,  will even be able to avoid the fate of the old. Because after a 50-year heyday, the Horn & Hardarts dwindled, then disappeared. A few attempts to revive the concept in intervening years have flopped.

New York's last Horn & Hardart, across from Grand Central Station on East 42nd Street, closed its doors 30 years ago. And by then, it was just a shadow of itself. "At that time, it wasn't the same," Joe Scutellaro said. "It was a little run-down. A little seedy."

Competition from McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants undoubtedly hurt. But there was also a technological hitch, Morfogen said. Those old coin-operated machines, meant to vend pie for 30 cents and coffee for a nickel, were not built for the late 20th-century economy. People just didn't carry that many dimes and quarters.

"In the 1970s, inflation ticked up so high," he said. "Suddenly lunch was a dollar fifty, dinner was three dollars." 

Joe Scutellaro poses for a photo at Automat Kitchen, in Jersey City. Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The newer automat style restaurants, like Automat Kitchen, don't have that problem. Not only do they not require coins, they don't require your physical presence. A commuter can order dinner by iPhone on the train, and find it waiting in its little compartment when they arrive.

Automat Kitchen, like the old automats, has seating: 10 stools, five tables. But they haven't gotten much use out of it since they opened in January. "Obviously, with COVID we are not able to have full capacity," Steve Scutellaro said. "The assumption is a large portion of the people will take the food to go."

Cajun cuisine:10 places to get spicy, buttery seafood boils in North Jersey

Hidden gems of takeout:7 North Jersey restaurants that go above and beyond

As for the menu itself: it's in the spirit, if not the letter, of its predecessor.

The old machines, 50 years ago, vended pretty basic stuff: stewed chicken, pastrami sandwich, baked beans, chopped sirloin steak. The Automat Kitchen menu is comfort food with a 21st-century twist.

They've got 25-plus items, ranging from miso roasted broccoli to Atlantic salmon to spaghetti squash. But in honor of their forbears, they've made sure to include mac & cheese (six varieties, including vegan), and chicken pot pie, two old-school automat staples. 

A mediterranean flat bread is shown at Automat Kitchen, in Jersey City. Tuesday, April 6, 2021

"I remember the chicken pot pie," Joe Scutellaro said. That's why I was very insistent that we have chicken pot pie on the menu." 

There is also coffee: the thing above all else that the Horn & Hardart restaurants were famous for. Horn & Hardart coffee still exists, as a brand.

But Automat Kitchen doesn't pretend to duplicate the ultimate automat experience: turning a handle and seeing your coffee spout from one of H & H's iconic steel dolphin-headed spigots.

Based, apparently, on a fountain in Pompeii — another good institution that fell by the wayside.

"We serve coffee as a nod to the concept,"  Steve Scutellaro said. "We serve a high-quality product. But it's not like a huge emphasis of ours."

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1