Entering the Jersey City automatic kitchen, my dad and I gaze through the brightly lit space of the gleaming wall of glass lockers. Above these lockers, a digital screen flashes the names of diners whose orders are increasing. Behind the invisible wall, the kitchen jostles to make pies, flatbreads and sandwiches, sliding the finished products into the rear-facing openings of the lockers.
In a way, it’s a bit like the automatons that my father fondly remembers from his childhood. These restaurants served cheap and high quality food through a vending system. In Times Square as a kid in the 1950s, he enthusiastically approached the wall of glass compartments, pushed a nickel into a slot, turned the shiny chrome handle, and pulled out a plate of pre-made hot spaghetti or a big slice of pie.
Besides, he told me, this new automaton is a start. Here we choose our lunch on a digital kiosk (you can also order online or scan a QR code on your phone). When our food is ready, I get a text, answer it, and door number four reveals our meal. The automaton was a great place for people to watch, my father said. Today, despite the Automat Kitchen lounge area, we take our food to go (in compostable packaging).
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Behind this mix of old and new hides another person with fond memories of an automaton: owner Joe Scutellaro. A native of Hoboken, Scutellaro remembers excursions with his grandmother to the Manhattan automaton. She would get the famous coffee, give out brass taps, and give Scutellaro a coin to jump into the wall to buy dessert. âIt was just really cool,â he says.
In its day, the Automaton was âan astonishing success,â says culinary historian Laura Shapiro. Joseph V. Horn and Frank Joseph Hardart opened their first automaton in Philadelphia in 1902, inspired by a similar concept in Germany. After the first site opened in New York in 1912, Horn & Hardart Automats quickly became a city staple.
Automatons have remained popular for decades, offering not only a new experience and clean, comfortable dining rooms, but also quick bites for worried New Yorkers, says Shapiro, who co-hosted Lunch Hour NYC with Rebecca Federman. , a 2012 exhibit at the New York Public Library that examined over a century how the city and its people shaped the midday meal. (The exhibit featured a restored Horn & Hardart automatic machine.)
Diners could have a meal for only a few cents, without a waiter to tip. But from the middle of the century, prices rose and quality fell. The vending machines have faced competition from other casual places and cafes, Shapiro says, as well as office buildings with their own cafeterias. Then came the fast food chains. Meanwhile, New Yorkers were flocking to the suburbs. The last location, in midtown Manhattan, closed in 1991.
Scutellaro never forgot the automaton, even after growing up and moving to The Brick, and especially not when he became an accountant with restaurant and hotel clients. Bringing the concept back took years. Scutellaro’s first attempt dates back to the early 2000s, but “the idea was ahead of the technology,” he says. “Touch screens and cell phones did not yet exist.”
A decade later, he decided to try again – choosing a location on the Jersey City waterfront for its proximity to high-rise office buildings and commuters to Manhattan. The plan was due to open in April 2020. Then the pandemic struck. He put the opening on hold, and in the meantime revamped the Automat Kitchen software to allow a completely contactless experience (in addition to touch screens) before finally opening last January.
Seems like the right time for a contactless dinner without waiters. âAny kind of food service that looks safe in a pandemic will be attractive,â notes Shapiro, who is also the author of What she ate: six remarkable women and the food that tells their stories. In other words, she adds, âif the food is good and the prices are reasonableâ.
After all, high-quality food and low prices, Shapiro notes, are what made the original vending machines so popular. It is not lost on Scutellaro. The menu includes two of the original favorites: the chicken pie and the macaroni and cheese. Such food pays homage to the comfort fare of the automaton. But there are also updates for current tastes, such as the Massaman curry roast, cereal bowl, black beans, and sofrito sauce that accompany the roast chicken. These mingle on the menu with the traditional root beer float and the grilled cheese sandwich. And if there is “nothing for a nickel or a quarter like the original automaton”, quips Scutellaro, it is important to keep things at a competitive price. The most expensive item, the Frito Breast Stuffed Pie Burrito, is $ 17.99; a taco for breakfast costs $ 2.99.
âWhat’s most rewarding is getting feedback on the food,â adds Scutellaro’s son Steve, who heads up marketing. Nostalgia alone isn’t enough, he says, “if the food and the experience aren’t up to par.”
The Scutellaros plan to open two to three more automatic kitchens in the northeast in the next two years. They are in talks to bring the concept to airports and train stations, as well as college campuses. They are also open to licensing their patented technology. âThe applications of such a system are endless,â says the young Scutellaro.
Related concepts emerge. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, which credits Horn & Hardart with inspiration and has its own contactless technology, plans to open in Hoboken this spring, according to founder Stratis Morfogen. A New Brunswick restaurant, offering meatballs with flavors inspired by classic sandwiches, is slated for the summer, with additional locations in New Jersey to follow.
These non-contact, take-away experiences are obviously suitable for times of pandemic. Yet, what made the Automatons so successful was, in part, the dinner vibe, Shapiro says. It lacks restaurants as we know them. Me too. And while Scutellaro says Automat Kitchen has always been primarily about take-out, he’s eager to give people back. After all, the automaton that generations of diners like my father fell in love with “was a place where people would hang out, have a cup of coffee.”
HOW TO VISIT: Automat Kitchen, 525 Washington Boulevard, Jersey City (in Newport Tower); 201-918-5131; automatkitchen.com.
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