Next week there is a screening at The Museum of the City of New York of the 2021 documentary “The Automat.” This film recounts the history of the iconic restaurant chain Horn & Hardart, which served affordable-priced quality food to millions of people.
Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened their first Automat in Philadelphia in 1902 and it was an instant success, leading to other Automats being opened in New York, and they remained in business until 1991. Built in Art-Deco style with huge rectangular halls filled with lacquered tables, these restaurants, although emulating an assembly line, were actually a highly entertaining place to eat. “Nickel throwers” – women in glass booths – would dispense 5-cent pieces to customers in exchange for paper money and larger coins which the patrons would then slip into slots next to glass compartments filled with a wide variety of food – sandwiches, salads, deserts and more. There was a chrome-plated knob on the other side of each compartment, that when twisted, opened the adjacent compartment so that the diner could scoop up his selection. There was another section for hot foods and beautifully ornate spigots that delivered delicious coffee or hot chocolate. The Automat had a strict fresh food policy and any food that was not consumed at the end of day was removed (albeit to be sold at a “day-old shop”) and new batches of food were inserted. A large staff of workers worked invisibly behind the wall of compartments to insure that during the day nothing ran out.
It was a great treat to go with my parents into “The City” and insert coins to get my lunch or watch the hot chocolate cascade into my cup. Obviously what was a fun experience from my childhood has made its way into the 21st Century, albeit at a much higher price point. Also it appears that while the choices in Horn and Hardart’s were rather pedestrian, today there is no end of exotic foods being vended. And it turns out this system delivers some non food surprises.
This wasn’t the only automated vending machines that filled my childhood memories. There was this:
WAFFLES WITH ICE CREAM, SODAS’R’US AND A LITTLE SKEEBALL – The Coney Island Sodamat Arcade was one of the first automated stores where for a nickel, you could choose from some 20 soda dispensers lined up side by side , each with a different flavor. On the opposite side vendors offered great slabs of perfectly cooked waffles smothered with globes of creamy ice cream- the hot and cold together certain to produce instant ice headache.
Today these automated vending machines serve up a plethora of products. This next is my personal favorite:
WINE : The Whale’s Tail – Anchorage, Alaska
A few years ago my friend and I went to this Bistro as a finale to a most unique and amazing hiking trip to the Kenai Peninsula. Using a customized “credit card,” loaded with a dollar figure of choice, access was given to a slew of automatic wine dispensers, similar to the Sodamats of my youth, mentioned above. Many fine wines to choose from as well as pours: single, double or triple. We had so much fun we honestly had to fill our cards twice:
Let’s take a look a some other international offerings that raised my eyebrows:
FRESH EGGS – JAPAN
Early bird gets the egg! – these refrigerated compartments operate just like the H&H ones – and are so popular that the eggs quickly are sold out. Each compartment holds 10-12 farm fresh eggs delivered daily by local farmers
LIVE CRABS – NANJING, CHINA
Although “live,” the crabs in this machine are kept in hibernation by maintaining an internal temperature of 41 degrees Farenheit. If for some reason the crab you buy isn’t fresh, the company’s guarantee says it will compensate you with three live ones. I don’t know – if the crab i bough isn’t fresh, I think I would just move on. Better yet, I will pass all together.
HOT SAUSAGES – GERMANY
This machine is set up outside a local butcher – for those who get late night sausage cravings. If your cravings run somewhat more elite, however – both Moscow and Los Angeles have pricey caviar vending machines:
MASHED POTATOES – SINGAPORE
Though I love mashed potatoes I am not too sure if I would want ones that are dispensed through a spigot like a beverage – gravy is optional. Similarly:
FRENCH FRIES – AUSTRALIA
The reports say that due to the latest technology this vending machine has stored frozen potatoes which can be thawed and fried in less than two minutes, producing golden crispy fries, salted and served with sauce and napkins – now THIS I would gladly taste!
Finally, in all of my imaginings I never expected that this vending machine product would be highly successful.
CARVANA – an online used car retailer based in Tempe, Arizona. The company is the fastest growing online used car dealer in the United States and is known for its multi-story car vending machines.
The Carvana Car Vending Machine is the first fully-automated, coin-operated car vending machine in the U.S. Similar to how a can of soda is dispensed through a vending machine once it’s been purchased, Carvana’s Car Vending Machine dispenses cars originally purchased online to customers through a fully-automated process. The Car Vending Machine provides a first-of-its kind, unparalleled user experience.
To pick-up a purchased vehicle, the customer enters their name and drops a coin into the Car Vending Machine’s Control Panel, which then lights up and initiates the vending process. The Vending Machine then retrieves the car from the Tower and places it on a track, which then moves the car through the machine until it reaches and enters the designated Delivery Bay. The Bay then opens and the customer is invited in, to take possession of their new vehicle.
Technology at its best??