How To Open An Automat
The pandemic has rendered what’s old new again. While mask mandates are slowly lifting in the U.S., many prefer to wear masks and remain socially distant. That has led to an influx in off-premise orders, contactless technologies, and the return of the automat. Effectively a vending machine for table service restaurants, an automat is an excellent way for guests to have their cake and eat it too. Evidence supports that masks and social distancing mitigated numerous viral contagions beyond COVID-19, making it a net positive for public health. Because of that, automats pull from the past to help reimagine a future that minimizes public health risks, while keeping customers hungry and ready for seconds.
The History of Automats
Although the automat is largely associated with the U.S., the concept first began in Berlin, Germany in 1895. The idea was a blend of vending machines and a self-serve cafeteria that upon gaining popularity was purchased by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart who opened the first U.S. automat in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1902. Customers would enter the restaurant, pay through a coin slot, and a kitchen, usually behind the scenes or in a basement, would satisfy the order by sending the food to the appropriate slot.
The coin-operated automat quickly became a sensation, taking off in multiple cities around the U.S. as one of the earliest fast-food chains. After declining popularity starting in the 1960s, the Horn and Hardart franchise lasted in the U.S. until 1991. Fortunately, the automat thrived in the Netherlands, leaving a blueprint for future franchises to come. Now, everything from indie dumpling pop-ups to Taco Bell is revitalizing the automat concept in the U.S., and maybe even beyond.
Automat Overview: The Layout
Modern automats like Eatsa are much like their predecessor, sit-down cafes with an automated front-of-house (FOH). Upon entry, customers select from a menu, pay, and their meal is delivered through a specific box that the back-of-house (BOH) can also access. In learning how to open an automat, let’s first examine how the BOH might be set up.
Whether you are developing a new restaurant business or building out from your existing operation, having the right tools can help you save time and money. Once you’ve determined your space, your first needs are the most obvious, the regular accouterment of a kitchen from ovens and ranges to coolers. Beyond that though, there are a variety of kitchen automation technologies —all part of a unified restaurant management platform— that can help.
Your first step is a reliable kitchen display system. The heart of your kitchen, a robust KDS is a logistics tool to help organize customer orders without sacrificing time or quality. For example, you may have an order that includes food items with different cook times. Likewise, you might have orders that go off-premise (more on that in a moment), or that come in from a variety of sources. A KDS can sort items by cook time, they can pace meals, and manage incoming capacity all without sacrificing quality.
Remember to find durable controllers and monitors as the front end of your tech, as kitchens can be both hectic and risky for technology. These devices are part of a rich restaurant platform that can solve both your back-and-front-of-house needs and can minimize pain points and bottlenecks in your restaurant.
One aspect of running any restaurant operation is keeping your meals consistent and high quality. A recipe viewer is an excellent appendage of a restaurant management platform that can provide valuable insights to BOH staff, from the obvious (recipes) to the helpful (tips). You can program recipe viewers to remind staff to clean, whether that’s surfaces or restaurant hardware.
Running Your Ghost Kitchen
For the uninitiated, ghost kitchens are BOH-only facilities that supply meals for off-premise orders. Over the pandemic, ghost kitchens proved especially popular and lucrative in that they boosted the potential for delivery, takeout, or curbside pickup, all while insulating your BOH staff from public health risks and vice versa. The right restaurant management platform features an off-premise order aggregator, which helps to sort orders by their destination (i.e. curbside, takeout, or delivery).
Since your automat is a ghost kitchen, albeit with a front end/walk-in component, you can enhance your business by seamlessly tapping into off-premise dining. During the pandemic, off-premise accounted for around 80% of sales in the U.S. restaurant industry, and it’s here to stay.
While the BOH is critical to your restaurant operation, the FOH is what your guests see first and foremost. For the most part, automats are very much the same as any other sit-down restaurant, with the exception of a table service or reservation system. That means that they require everything from somewhere to order and pay, to basic cleaning needs. Let’s take a look at one more way that might energize your FOH efforts.
Another vestige from the pandemic, contactless technologies empower customers to take control. With contactless technologies, customers can digitally peruse a menu with the use of QR codes and smartphone technology. With the same QR codes, you can offer payment or pay through a digital kiosk. Those technologies will transmit your order to the BOH, where they are processed and returned quickly and efficiently. You can even use order-ready screens to field general guest questions about when to expect their meal, all of which tie into your restaurant management platform.
Automat – Conclusion
The automat is a revitalized concept for a reason: it provides you with opportunities that are girded against the next pandemic or public health crisis. Restaurant staff and guests are separate from one another, outside of your FOH cleaning regiment. Guests can order on their time and at their leisure, free to select their meal and pay for it without the need for FOH staff. With the National Restaurant Association projecting a 10.2% increase in sales in 2021, the future is always looking brighter.
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About the Author
Syd was a content marketing specialist, which are fancy words for writing pretty to tell a good story. He likes writing things about food, drinks, and music. He’s a musician himself, a father of two, and loves his wife a whole lot.