Automat

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It was one of the wonders of New York. See me at the machine. American Brasserie Automat in the heart of Mayfair London. Well before fast-food chains invaded the city, the vending machine was the most popular place in New York to enjoy a quick lunch. Automat helps companies use AI to talk to their customers, understand them and serve them better.

Ascent and descent of the vending machine

Or whatever happend to Horn & Hardart? All of this seems so futuristic: a place with no waiter, no staff behind the bar, no staff to see, where you just put your cash in a glass-roofed bar, take a steamed dish of newly prepared groceries and bring them to your desk.

Wellcome to Horn & Hardart, around 1950, a food retailer that once had 40 New York City offices and tens more in the U.S., at a times when vending machines were serving hundred thousand city clients every single day. What a great city! Often regarded as an entirely US phenomena, the vending machine actually opened the world's first ever eatery of its kind in Berlin in 1895.

Quisisana - called after a firm that also produced automatic grocery machines - saw the establishment of this high-tech restaurant in other towns in North Europe, and Quisisana soon acquired a license for its technologies from Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who opened the first US machine in Philadelphia in 1902. Like so many other social tendencies, it was in New York at the turn of the 20th Century that machines really took off.

New York's first Horn & Hardart was opened in 1912, and soon the necklace had found an appeal formula: consumers traded dollars for a handful of nickel (from handsome ladies behind glas cabins carrying gum points on their fingers), then gave their exchange in slot dispensers, turned the buttons and pulled out dishes of Meatloaf, Potato Puree and Kirschkuchen, among several hundred other menus.

The food was local and cafeteriastyle, so Horn & Hardart vending machines were seen as a precious remedy for the Snobberie of so many New York cafes. Horn & Hardart was also the first New York based restaurateur that offered its clients freshly-brewed coffee for one nickle per cups.

The staff were ordered to dispose of all jars that had been left for more than twenty minute, a task that led Irving Berlin to write the track "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" (which quickly became the Horn & Hardart band's offical jingle). Not much (if any) selection was made, but in regards to dependability, Horn & Hardart could be regarded as the 1950s Starbucksivalent.

With all the high-tech equipment and the shortage of visual staff, one could give Horn & Hardart clients the impression that their meals were cooked and processed by robotics. Obviously this was not the case, and one can argue that vending machines were successful at the cost of their hard-working people.

Meanwhile, the restaurant manager still had to employ people to do the cooking, transport groceries to the dispensers and rinse cutlery and crockery - but since all these activities took place behind the scene, they got away with making sub-par salaries and making staff work long hours. The AFL-CIO selected Horn & Hardarts throughout the town in August 1937 and protested against the chain's dishonest labour practice.

Horn & Hardart managed it in its prime, also because the company founder of the same name did not want to relax on their praise. At the end of the working days, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart ordered that all foods not consumed at the end of the working days be shipped to low-cost, "one-day" points of sale, and a strong, leather-bound manual circulating rules and regulations informed staff about the correct preparation and management of literally hundred of menus.

Both Horn and Hardart (the founder, not the restaurant) were also always working on their own formulas and gathered as often as possible at a "sample table", where they and their managers selected the new menus with their fingers up or down. In the 1970s, vending machines like Horn & Hardart faded in popularity, and the guilty were easily identified.

Firstly, quick foods such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken provided much more restricted menu items, but a more recognizable "taste", and they also took advantage of lower labour and meal charges. Secondly, municipal laborers were less likely to interrupt their day with comfortable lunch, including appetizers, main courses and desserts, and chose to eat light snacks spontaneously; one can imagine that the financial turmoil in New York in the 1970s also discouraged more individuals from bringing their meal from home to the workplace.

At the end of the century, Horn & Hardart gave in to the unavoidable and rebuilt most of its New York City offices into Burger King stores; the last Horn & Hardart, on Third Avenue and 42nd Street, eventually left the market in 1991. Today, the only place where you can see what Horn & Hardart looks like is the Smithsonian Institution, which houses a 35-foot section of the 1902 old 1902 dining establishment, and the remaining automats of this necklace are said to be languishing in a New York hinterland camp.

Eatsa, opened in San Francisco in 2015, seems to be different in every way from Horn & Hardart: each option is prepared with Qinoa and ordered via iPad after a brief interactivity with a Mac-Tre d' virtuellen. It seems in the grocery business that the more things are changing, the more they remain the same!

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