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What is an Automat?

Learn about the history of the automat restaurant, how to start one, and what foods are served at an automat.

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An automat is a restaurant type where vending machines are used to serve fast, simple foods. Learn about the history of the automat restaurant, how to start one, and what foods are served at an automat.

What is an Automat?

An automat is a fast food restaurant where food is served through what is essentially a giant vending machine. Similar to how vending machines work today, at an automat, customers can choose food items by viewing the options through glass windows and inserting coins to retrieve what they want. Automats are restaurants with a wall that is essentially made up of a series of boxed windows. Customers can see through the glass on one side to look at the food choices. On the other side of the wall, employees cook and prepare the food items and replace them in the windows as customers make purchases.

An automat restaurant essentially features a display similar to vending machines but with various fresh meals to give customers a variety of options and instant gratification. Automats are usually set up like a cafeteria as the food is freshly prepared and served on a tray – so diners can sit and eat at a table in the automat after choosing their meal from the window displays.

What is the history of the Automat?

The first automat opened in Berlin in 1895 and the fast food technology was later brought to Philadelphia in 1902. An automat was later opened in New York City in 1912 and was called Hardart Company’s “Automat Lunch Room.” It was billed as a “high-technology” wonder due to its unique look and ability for self-service. The automat is considered the birth of fast food because customers were able to purchase an item by inserting a coin, which then allowed them to turn a knob and open a door to receive a meal instantly. The automat was popular among city workers in New York who were looking for a quick bite to eat during short lunch breaks.

The automat started to decline in popularity with the rise of other fast food restaurants selling packaged meals that could be taken away, versus having to sit and eat the meal inside the automat. The last Horn and Hardart automat closed in the 1990s. A 21st-century automat, Eatsa, opened in San Francisco in 2015 and survived about four years before closing.

What is typically on the menu at an Automat?

Automats were popular because the food was always fresh and served hot or cold. The menu items were typically comfort-fare, such as pies, macaroni, and cheese, mashed potatoes, soups or sandwiches, and salads. The Horn and Hardart automat in New York City often offered 400 different menu items – everything from desserts to savory pies, cold foods, hot entrees, and beverages like hot coffee and cold, freshly squeezed juice.

How do you start an Automat?

Automats are returning and now is a good time to jump on the once-popular fast-food trend as it continues to gain traction once again. 

To help you get started with your own restaurant, we put together a comprehensive step-by-step guide on how to open a restaurant. 

The first step to opening a restaurant is creating a business plan. Other steps include finding a good location (and maybe conducting market research to determine where an automat would perform well) and obtaining licenses, including a health department permit, a food handler’s license, and a food sales permit. 

The menu will be an essential element of the automat, so be sure to spend time designing your menu and find ways to offer a wide selection. Moreover, an automat is usually a laid-back cafeteria-style atmosphere, so look for a location where you can provide ample seating.  

How much does it cost to start an Automat?

An automat is a device that was invented by Quisisana in Germany and you can purchase a more modern automat today. A typical vending machine costs around $8,000 - $10,000, but an automat may be more expensive due to its ability to maintain the temperature of cooked foods.

Restaurant startup costs can vary based on location, local rent prices, whether you have furniture and seating, renovation needs, and more. The average cost to open a restaurant can range from $100,000 to $2 million.

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