Once futuristic, then dead, the automat returns | WNYT.com

Once futuristic, then dead, the automat returns

Created: May 06, 2021 08:26 PM

At the height of its popularity in the early 20th century, there were 40 buffet-style automats in New York.

The waiterless eatspots were once considered the wave of the future, but by the 1970s they were overwhelmed by the explosive growth of fast food restaurants.

But now, in the wake of the pandemic, two very different restaurants are bringing back automat-style eating to New York.

With cell phone ordering, heated cubbies, and pastrami dumplings, the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop in New York's East Village is trying to make the automat futuristic again.

"What I want to do is have the whole guest experience controlled by your smartphone, and that was the exciting part about bringing the automat back to the 21st century, where the consumer can place the order, schedule a pickup or delivery through a third party courier all on their phone and basically do that with just in the palm of your hand," said Stratis Morfogen, Owner of Brooklyn Dumpling House.

Partnering with Panasonic, Morfogen plans to open New York's first successful automat since The Horn & Hardart Co., owner of the most famous New York City automats, got out of the business in 1990.

Morfogen says people are so excited about the idea that he's already sold nearly 100 franchise options, before his first store has its grand opening.

It's not only Morfogen's dumpling shop that is taking a go at reviving the automat, but also Taco Bell.

In its new Times Square cantina, Taco Bell has what it calls "cubbies," but what looks like a nouveau automat of its own.

"Some of it's for safety and I want a contactless experience. For other people, it's I just want to be left alone and go do my thing. And for other people, you know, we want to be everything to the consumer. We want to be able to provide what fits them best and that's really the I think what's happened is many of these that these elements have been in the works for years. COVID has just hit the speed-up button and the world is now expecting it," said Mike Grams, Taco Bell's President and Global COO.

Grams says Taco Bell isn't looking at its "cubbies" to take the place of employees, but Morfogen says that at Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, he's hoping the technology will help them cut payroll by 10-15%.

"If we can drop the payroll down to 15% of the sales, we've revolutionized fast food. And we will flip seven out of 10 restaurants that have failed to seven out of 10 restaurants that will not just succeed, will thrive, and that is saving jobs on the long run," says Morfogen.

Both new versions of the automat-style lockers will definitely catch the eyes of consumers, but Morfogen says in the end the technology will only take his restaurant so far.

"There have been people and companies that have reintroduced, the automat, in the last 30 years, and they went out of business and they say, see, the automat went out of business," said Morfogen. "The automat is as good as the food. If your food is not on point, you will fail."

(Copyright 2021 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)