Automats were fast food restaurants, popular in the U.S. in the mid-1900’s, where simple foods and drink were served by vending machines. The world’s first Automat opened in Berlin, Germany in 1895 and they were brought to the U.S. in 1902 by the restaurant chain Horn and Hardart, which opened its first Automat in Philadelphia. Automats started to decline in popularity in the 1960s, and the last ones in New York City closed in 1991. I remember seeing the last of the Automats in NYC shortly after I moved there. On a recent trip to Paris I found a vending machine built into the wall of a corner butcher shop that sold ham products, kind of a pork Automat.
Now Chicago’s Wow Bao is bringing back the Automat in Chicago’s Near North neighborhood to serve their dumplings and buns. Wow Bao sells an assortment of Bao – teriyaki chicken, spicy kung pao chicken, whole wheat with edamame, thai curry chicken, spicy mongolian beef, BBQ pork, coconut custard and chocolate. They also serve vegetable and pork and cabbage pot stickers. At their new Automat concept customers will order and pay at a kiosk and pick up their food from one of a dozen LED-lit cubbies, which will display the customer’s name on an LCD screen when their food is ready. The restaurant won’t have any wait staff but will have human cooks, so the robots haven’t completely taken over. Wow Bao is also introducing a new app so customers can order dumplings on their phones and pick them up from the Automat. The Automat format could work great for Wow Bao’s expansion into the airport food service sector.
The return of the Automat was being spearheaded, by a grain bowl and salad chain called Eatsa, but their concept hasn’t caught on beyond their home base in San Francisco. Eatsa scrapped plans for a Chicago store and is closing existing stores in New York, Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, Calif. So now it is up to Wow Bow to run with Eatsa’s technology and bring back the Automat.