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Reason for the decline of automats

  1. Jun 18, 2012 #1
    It is said in a Wikipedia article that automats declined because of the rise of fast food chains. Are fast food chains more efficient than automats? What exactly makes fast food chains better than automats?


  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 18, 2012 #2


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    Given low minimum wage scales and huge maintenance costs, I suspect that it might be cheaper to have a couple of servers and one or two cooks rather than the cooks and a bunch of complex machines.
    Also, I like to have a bit of a human touch to my meal.
  4. Jun 18, 2012 #3
    Are there any left? They were popular in the 30s and 40s, I can remember being in one with my father when I was about 5. I remember seeing something about some young entrepreneurs starting one somewhere recently.

    I think they're more expensive to operate, supplying a larger menu and operating/maintaining expensive dispensing machines. There's also the issue of getting restaurant food from a dispensing machine. I think people like the illusion of freshness that they may have when getting their food in a bag from a uniformed person behind the counter even if the menu is limited.
  5. Jun 18, 2012 #4
    My mother took me to the Horn and Hardart's in Phila. when I was a child. That's the only time I ever ate there. I don't remember how good the food was but I do remember how much fun it was to put the coins in the slots and get the food out.
  6. Jun 18, 2012 #5
    This is the first time I've ever heard of them. I had no idea there ever was such a thing.
  7. Jun 18, 2012 #6


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    Never had them in central Maine, but it isn't really surprising. There is not much that you can buy with a handful of quarters, and bill-readers didn't become common until quite recently. (I'm old, so think in geological time-scales.) :tongue:
  8. Jun 18, 2012 #7
    In Phila, before the big chains, there was a small chain called Dewey's. They went the way of the dinosaur too. I don't remember ever eating there, but I used to get an orange juice there from time to time. I think it was 10 or 15 cents by then and the glass was very small. They do not sell drinks that small any more.

  9. Jun 18, 2012 #8


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    Same here. I have heard the word, but somehow I thought it had something to do with drive-in theaters :confused:.
  10. Jun 18, 2012 #9


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    I've eaten at some. Cold food sitting in a window. Who knows how old it is. But I was a kid, you put money in, food came out, although the window always tried to close on your hand before you got the food out.
  11. Jun 18, 2012 #10
    Maybe we don't call them automates any more, but who has not eaten food out of a vending machine? We only do that when we need something very quickly and nothing else is available. The equivalent today would be anyplace that sells food highly processed for long shelf life with a microwave handy to warm it up.
  12. Jun 18, 2012 #11
    Not really. Horne and Hardart dominated the industry with fresh comfort style food which was advertised as always hot (if it was supposed to be hot). The food was prepared in kitchens on site and they were very popular in Philadelphia and New York. There really is no equivalent today although one was apparently opened recently in New York City. H&H fed a good portion of the lunchtime crowd in midtown Manhattan during the heyday of its operation.

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/object_aug01.html [Broken]

    EDIT: BAMN!!, the new automat in lower Manhattan apparently went out of business last March. I guess the days of the traditional automat are truly done.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  13. Jun 19, 2012 #12
    There are fast food vending machines in 7-11 and other convenience stores which keep the food refrigerated to prevent decomposition. These vending machines are placed close to microwaves so that the person can warm up the food they buy from the machine.

    Maybe automats declined because keeping the food constantly hot does not prolong the shelf life of the food and if there is ever a day where business is down and plenty of the food is not being bought, the food will decompose and go to waste, so it is much more practical to let the customers heat the food themselves since modern day trivection and microwave ovens can do this quickly, besides, refrigerators use less energy because of their insulation and thermostats.

    Additionally, other types of food establishments that do not use waiters include buffet restaurants and food kiosks. To avoid the cost of waiters and having to have a machine for every type of food, the customers take the ready cooked food from the buffet lines and kiosks and they are simply billed after they finish their meal. With modern day surveillance cameras, locking the food in an automat is unnecessary since the cameras will discourage people from just taking food and leaving without paying. Some types of food kiosks also have the kitchen right behind them and the chef doubles as a cashier who accepts payment before preparing the fast food meal. Just like the automats, all of these establishments make use of processed ingredients, and fast food cooking equipment to quickly cook the food.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2012
  14. Jul 10, 2012 #13
    The thread originator is requesting an answer to the following question: are the business models for fast food service mentioned in post #12 more efficient than automats and thus the reason for the decline of automats?
  15. Jul 10, 2012 #14
    How about a built-in microwave? It can heat it for the right amount of time automatically when it's bought.
  16. Jul 10, 2012 #15
    I'd have to disagree with post # 12. The problem is food and labor have become so extraordinarily cheap people have demanded a minimum amount of service. So cheap you see endless fast food restaurants even in ghettos these days which were among the last places you used to find automates.

    This trend began shortly after WWII when the military informed congress they need to feed the poor better if they wanted them to continue fighting in wars. The recruits they had in WWII often had rickets and other easily preventable diseases and usually had no clue what a balanced diet was even if they could afford one. The solution was adding supplements to foods such as vitamins and creating programs like food stamps and wick. Currently one in seven Americans is on food stamps.

    MacDonald's has an experimental automated restaurant and they've found people still want a human being at the register. A bit of reassurance I suppose that someone is actually watching the machines and can deal with complaints. This is the same kind of trend seen in other industries where slowly but surely people become more used to machines doing work traditionally done by people. But to get there the machines have to provide at least some bare minimum of what people really want.
  17. Jul 10, 2012 #16


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    In rural areas such as this, automats would make no sense, financially. You can attach a little diner to a convenience store at any truck-stop and pay your food-service staff less than minimum wage. The owner has to make up the difference to minimum wage only if the tips don't bring the staff's income up to minimum wage.

    I think it's unfair, having an aunt and a sister who have worked in the restaurant industry for years, and watching them struggle. Why not minimum wage for the staff, and let them keep the tips individually (and share them with the bus-boys who clear their tables) instead of pooling them? The restaurant industry has an edge over a lot of other fields. I'm not sure if other states have laws in place to extend minimum wage to servers, bus-boys, etc, but it's tough for people in such positions to make a living, even if they are great at their jobs.
  18. Jul 10, 2012 #17
    In their heyday, automats served customers in big cities, primarily NY and Philadelphia, who wanted restaurant style food served quickly. It seems they served hot food at steam tables self serve style and only dispensed room temperature food in the windows. Ice cream and coffee were served at staffed kiosks. It was efficient, but the loss of downtown dinner customers as the suburbs developed and competition from fast food and suburban restaurants contributed to the decline. Automats needed high volume to survive.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2012
  19. Jul 10, 2012 #18
    I think we could say that other than cart vendors automats were the original fast food restaurants.

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/object_aug01.html [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  20. Jul 10, 2012 #19
    I think I'v heard it said that the fast food chains aren't about selling food as much as they are about selling properties and perhaps that is part of what makes them more attractive as buying a plot of land that had the name mcds on it probably brings more customers then if it was just some random unknown food place most people just drive buy.

    Also I remember seeing a few movies back in the day that made buying food from a little window seem really nasty I wonder if that had something to do with it?
  21. Jul 10, 2012 #20
    I read recently the state of Georgia has turned to using convict labor to harvest crops because they've started cracking down on illegal immigrants. You have to ask yourself what was the point of getting rid of the illegal immigrants if the state is just going to encourage using convicts and people working under the table.
  22. Jul 10, 2012 #21
    This seems like a good idea. It may work like this: the customer will insert the money into the coin and bill acceptors or EPS payment system and the food container can somehow be lowered into the microwave chamber and automatically heated with time dependent on the type of food. The microwave can then have an automatic release lock so that the food can be taken out when the food is cooked.
  23. Mar 8, 2013 #22
    I may have found the answer to the reason for the decline of automats in the early 20th century: these technologies relied on electromechanical computers to control them. Such computers are bulky and break down easily because of the large size of the switches and circuits and the mechanical friction and waste heat that causes the computers to quickly wear out. These facilities also lacked another feature: a bill acceptor that can read bills. This means that items that are expensive enough to require bills as payment cannot be sold in these facilities which limits the items that customers can purchase. Of course there has been a resurgence in these types of facilities in recent years in the form of vending machines and automated groceries because of the developments in VLSI solid-state transistor computers which are compact, use less power and therefore generate less waste heat, and do not wear out quickly due to the absence of moving parts and the invention of the bill acceptor. The questions in this thread have been answered, thank you.

    Additionally, the automat is an example of a technologically feasible concept that uses technologies that work but do not possess sufficient reliability for commercial use. Another example of such a technology that is ahead of its time are the coal powered piston steam engine automobiles of the 18th and 19th centuries. The piston steam engine gives the car a poor fuel economy because it has a poor energy conversion efficiency and power density because of all the stages that the engine has which makes it heavy and introduces tremendous losses in energy. Coal also has a poor energy density which lowers the overall power density of the automobile because of the weight penalty that it gives the automobile. And the last inconvenience that such vehicles have are the complexity and long starting times of the steam engines. The steam engines are more complex than internal combustion engines because they have more moving parts, increasing the amount of maintenance that they need in order to operate and because the steam engine operates on the principle of boiling water into steam, the water would have to be heated up for several minutes before the engine develops enough pressure to move the vehicle.
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