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Reinventing the Automat

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Redbox Debuts at Baltimore-Washington Airport

I remember that we had an automat in Bangor. It’s a dim recollection of putting nickels and dimes into machines and having pie and hot chocolate with someone (my great aunt?) as a little kid. But by then, I am sure that the hot food was gone (other than dispensed soup), replaced by a coffee service that filled the machines once or twice a day. I think that’s more along the lines of what McDonald’s is trying to do with their spiffy “new” Redbox concept — real food from a vending machine! Ooh, what will they think of next?

People have short memories.

A fellow goes into the Automat and starts pumping nickels into the machines and taking out pieces of pie, one after another. After awhile the manager of the place begins to wonder what’s going on and goes over to the fella and asks him what he’s doing. “Leave me alone,” says the guy, “can’t you see I’m winning?”

One of the problems with that joke is in the first sentence. Anyone born after 1980 (and many before that) probably won’t know what the word “Automat” means.

In 1902, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, a couple of guys with a successful chain of lunchrooms in Philadelphia, opened up something different. It was “a waiterless restaurant where people (particularly urban dwellers) could get a good hot meal, fast and cheap.” Rows of futuristic-looking food vending machines lined the walls of well-lit, clean dining halls. The only visible attendant was the lady who made change (no change machines, yet). Behind the scenes, cooks prepared a varied assortment of hot dishes, pies and other solid fare to replace what was pulled from behind the little glass door.


At its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, pie and coffee cost a nickel and the most expensive menu item (turkey and dressing) cost as much as a quarter. Additional foods on the 87-item menu, such as the 18 different kinds of vegetables, baked pork and beans, pork chops, beef liver, beef tongue, and lamb stew ranged in price between these two extremes (Streitfeld).

Visit Steve Stollman’s theautomat.com for pictures and info. (He may have gone over the edge with Was the Automat the Lost City of Atlantis? But that makes him o.k. in my book!)

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