They had been around since the 19th century, and mostly disappeared 30 years ago. Now automats are coming back, with some 21st century improvements.
The food vending machines are a piece of nostalgia for many, with about 150 around the world at one point. Using one was easy enough: Simply put in some coins, and open a small door that food would pop out from.
The new automat in Jersey City's Newport neighborhood is much more tech-friendly, but is still the same basic premise. To order, customers enter their order into an app or a kiosk. Their name will appear on screen, and a numbered delivery box will light up when the food is ready. Once the customer types "open" on their phone, the door will do so and the food can be taken away.
There is one change from the classic automat: Back then, food could have been sitting around for hours. Not so with this new form, as none of the food — ranging from mac 'n cheese to curry pot roast — will be pre-made, according to one of the restaurant's partners.
"We try to make sure the food is freshly made, a large variety and make sure we constantly update that," said Bob Baydale, a managing partner for Jersey City's Automat Kitchen. "So we're keeping true to the original automat tradition. We've just updated this delivery system."
The last automat disappeared around 1991 — but the return 30 years later could not have been timed better, especially in the time of COVID. The contactless service is something that may appeal to those looking to stay as safe as possible, while still being able to enjoy a restaurant-quality meal.
But Baydale said the idea for the automat has been in the works for a decade. They're just hoping to ride the takeout wave long after the pandemic is over. He also said the goal is to open two or three more automats within the next couple of years.