Automats: Fast Food Before We Had Fast Food Restaurants

By Jacob Shelton
(Berenice Abbott/Wikimedia Commons)

Say what you will about the fast food experience, but whatever it may lack in fresh ingredients and customer service, it more than makes up in speed and price. That's why, long before fast food giants like McDonald's and Taco Bell became a way of life, people were dreaming up eateries that gave customers the soggy, salty food they craved without the hassle. In the early 1900s, anyone with few cents to spare and even fewer minutes could get a whole meal in as little time as it takes to vend a bag of chips at an automat.

The First Automat

At the turn of the 20th century, Horn & Hardat rolled out the first American automat in Philadelphia. The concept of vending machine restaurants had been around for a few years, first popping up in Germany and Japan, but Horn & Hardat's contribution to the automat game became an institution in just a few years.

Founders Joseph Horn and Frank Hardat based their automat design on the original versions of the restaurants that were founded in Germany, featuring single items of cold food behind glass doors. Diners paid a specified amount for whatever they wanted, twisted the chrome-plated knob on the door, and pulled themselves out a perfectly mediocre treat. Eventually, many automats adopted the use of steam tables to serve hot items like soup buffet-style. By 1912, automats made their way to New York City.