A digital-age reimagining of the Automat opened this week in Jersey City, New Jersey that combines high-end comfort food via touchless, contactless tech. The company in question is called Automat Kitchen, and according to a press release sent out this week, its first Automat location is in the the Newport Tower, which houses office space and is connected to a shopping mall.
It’s the latest development in the slowly growing movement to reinvent the Automat, which was a mainstay of to-go eating throughout most of the twentieth century. Back then, the coin-operated cubbies contained hot and cold foods, and the server-less concept provided meals for thousands of diners every day.
The march of time put an end to the concept in the 1990s. Tech and a global pandemic have brought it back in the 2020s.
Automat Kitchen’s version is a hardware/software combo. Users order ahead of time at the Automat Kitchen site and select a pickup time. They can also order at the physical location by scanning a QR code posted to pull up the menu. All orders are done digitally. Once the order is placed and paid for, the user receives a code with which to unlock one of the stacked cubbies.
Besides the the obvious difference of ordering and paying digitally instead of unlocking a cubby with a nickel, the other major change in Automat Kitchen’s system is the food itself. Originally, Automat food was pre-made, so you weren’t exactly getting the freshest burger on the block. Automat Kitchen notes its meals are cooked to order and are meant to be a fresh, healthier take on comfort foods. Actual humans cook the food, but there is no customer-to-staff interaction in Automat Kitchen’s process.
The pandemic has created the perfect setting in which this type of meal format could become hugely popular. The entire restaurant industry has shifted its focus to off-premises meal formats, with pickup being a major one of them. Menus are simplifying to save on costs and ensure travel-friendly foods. Major restaurant chains are designing the dining room out of their plans, or at the very least minimizing its presence. Finally, a vaccine being circulated doesn’t mean we’re all going to rip off the masks and hit the Golden Corral in droves come spring. Safety and a lessening of human-to-human interactions in the restaurant will be a concern for a lot of customers as they trickle back into some semblance of normality.
Another notable revamp of the Automat is the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, which will open its first location this year and feature a similar temperature-controlled cubbies accompanied by tech. Further south, in Colombia, ghost kitchen network RobinFood has pickup cubbies at its locations, too. Digital cubby systems, meanwhile, have popped up now and again for years in the restaurant industry from the likes of Brightloom, Minnow, Ubo, and others. The list of companies updating the Automat will in all likelihood get much longer this year.