The automat was truly the first fast food, served in a different way than the modern fast food restaurant. Instead of placing an order with a cashier, customers were faced with rows of vending machines, where they could drop in their nickels and get freshly prepared meals like potpie or stew. People preparing food stocked the vending machines. An automat usually featured a kitchen behind the row, which kept up on supply. First popular in Europe, automats came to the US in 1902, with the first opening in Philadelphia.
There were many differences between the automat and today’s fast food restaurants. First and foremost was the use of real dishes, glasses and cups to serve food instead of today’s paper wrapping or cartons, which most fast food restaurants employ. Food choices in the US tended to reflect traditional comfort foods. In addition to meals like stew or meatloaf, sandwiches and soup were popular too. The earliest automats did feature a cashier who took the nickels for each item, but as coin operated vending machines became popular, cashiers were gradually phased out.
Competition from fast food restaurants ultimately led to the demise of the automat. But there are several other reasons why these convenient restaurants became less popular in the US. First, drive in restaurants and then drive through windows became a popular way to get food, and you didn’t have to leave your car or communally dine with others. Additionally, food became too expensive to be purchased with nickels or even quarters, and the ability for vending machines to take dollars wasn’t widely available. The last original automat in the US closed up shop in 1991.
In Europe, automats also declined in popularity, but they remain popular in the Netherlands. The most successful of these is a chain of automats called FEBO, which combines counter service with vending machines. Standard available choices include things like hamburgers, croquets, and French fries. You’ll find FEBO automats distributed throughout the Netherlands, with over 100 locations.
The success of the FEBO and Netherlands automats in general, and nostalgia for these convenient restaurants in the US prompted Robert Kwak, David Leong, and Nobu Nguyen to try opening an automat again in the US. In 2006, the restaurant, Bamn! Automat opened in New York City. Food is not served on crockery and there are no tables in this modern interpretation. Most food is portable “snack” type items like fried mozzarella sticks, or chicken nuggets. A cashier is on hand to serve food like soft-serve ice cream and French fries.