For introverts since the dawn of time, eating out has presented a set of problems — mainly, having to interact with other humans in order to get your hands on a simple turkey sandwich. For a brief time in the early 20th century, the invention of the automat took care of that with its waiter-free format. Fork over a nickel, turn a knob, pick up the food that magically appeared in the tiny compartment next to the slot, and voila! You just acquired lunch sans awkward eye contact and half-mumbled small talk. What more could a diner want?
If you find the prospect appealing, you’re in luck. Decades after the rise of fast food put them out of business, automat-style restaurants may be poised for a comeback. Eatsa, a fully automated, San Francisco-based restaurant chain, announced this fall that it will scale back its physical retail locations to focus on “enabling other restaurants to use the eatsa [sic] platform.” In other words, the chain is bringing its system to other established brands. According to the Chicago Tribune, the first to adopt the new format is Wow Bao, a fast casual Asian eatery based in Chicago.
For those who don’t keep up with the restaurant industry, Eatsa first opened its doors in San Francisco in 2015. For being so high-tech, the concept is simple: Diners place an order on an iPad or the mobile app, and a team of back-of-house (and out of sight) kitchen staff prepares the food in the back. When it’s ready, which should be within a few minutes, the meal appears in a glass cubby — much like the automats that were so popular in northeastern cities nearly a century ago. But in case you need a reminder that we live in 2017, Eatsa’s cubbies are emblazoned with diners’ individual names until the order is picked up.
Although it was hailed as a revolutionary concept at the time, Eatsa hearkens back to the days of the automat, where customers retrieved food from what were essentially giant vending machines. Like Eatsa, dishes were prepared by workers hidden from view; diners put their own meals together by purchasing individual items, from salads to coffee cake. Originally a European concept, the first automat in the United States opened its doors in Philadelphia in 1902. Ten years later, the idea had proven popular enough that the company, Horn & Hardart, was able to open a location in Times Square. Given the fast-paced lifestyle New York is known for, it’s no wonder the automat quickly caught on.