By Regan Hofmann
The New York Public Library’s Lunch Hour NYC exhibit is an engrossing, immersive look at how New York City invented lunch as we know it, shifting the sizable agrarian end-of-work supper to a timely pause from the day’s business. Sustenance was needed, but we city folk couldn’t be bothered to stop working long enough to go home and chow down with ma and pa—gimme a sandwich and a cuppa coffee and let me get back to work.
The greatest—and most quintessentially New York—of the institutions that arose with this new meal was the automat. It’s the apotheosis of lunch; if you’re in too much of a hurry to even talk to a server, deposit your nickel, take your bowl of soup and get on with your day. It was the perfect emblem of the contradictions of the industrial age, a shining promise of a glorious future in which machines were our slaves and mankind was free to devote itself to higher pursuits, while in reality serving nickel pie slices to the working class who were so under the boss’ thumb they couldn’t spare more than 15 minutes to feed themselves.
Ironically, while the glow of modernity was the automats’ first draw, the march of time was also their undoing. Technology couldn’t keep up with inflation, and by the 1970s, food was too expensive to be sold in machines that could only accept coins. The last branch of Horn & Hardart (on 42nd Street, natch), the original automat chain, closed in 1991.
But now that we are in another golden age of technological advance—and in a similarly precarious economic position—I say it’s high time for the automat to make a comeback.
Think about it. New Yorkers still hate dealing with people. We’re still in a rush. We like to be in control. Most importantly, we really hate dealing with people. The most popular lunch option in Midtown these days are by-the-pound salad bar delis, teeming with office drones who pile fried rice next to their shrimp scampi and cottage cheese and pineapple, drop it on the scale and get back to their desks. Wouldn’t the process be so much better if the scampi was nicely plated? The cottage cheese in its own bowl? You grab, you go, you don’t even have to stop at the scale.
Already there are restaurants incorporating elements of the mechanized, do-it-yourself system that made automats so perfect—unfortunately, none have made it past the gimmick stage. Six years ago, the return of the automat was touted on St. Mark’s Place with the opening of Bamn! Their (still brilliant) motto was “Satisfaction is automatic.” It was met with skepticism and foundered for three years before folding, but I contend it was simply a question of wrong place, wrong time (OK, and wrong name).
The college students and Japanese hipsters who patrol St. Mark’s had no fondness for the idea of an automat—many probably never heard the word before—and most of the people on that strip aren’t in a rush to get anywhere, let alone back to work. If the same place had opened on East 38th Street, it would have been a hit, goofy name and all.
Case in point: 4Food, a tech-crazy burger shop at 40th Street (286 Madison Ave., 4food.com), has been open for two years and still generates enough traffic to pay the rent. There, diners use iPads to customize their burgers from bun to patty to toppings. While you’re waiting, an LED screen displays the place’s Twitter feed, so you can have a real-time conversation with the managers while you’re waiting, all on your lonesome. So far, so good—but someone still has to hand you the food.
Asia, it turns, out, is the new epicenter for lunchtime automation. In Japan, conveyor-belt sushi restaurants have long offered diners the ability to help themselves to just the fish that looks best to them today. In Harbin, China, the Haohai Robot Restaurant is staffed by 18 mechanical men who do everything from cooking the food to bringing it to your table. A small staff in a back room monitors their power supply and keeps an eye out for any problems, just like the behind-the-scenes staff at a Horn & Hardart, but otherwise it’s just you, your robot and your sandwich—a true power lunch.
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