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Automats: The Utopian Future or a Return to a Dystopian Past?

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The reincarnation of the automat brings up complex moral questions.

An automat at NYC's Grand Central Station, 1948.
An automat at NYC's Grand Central Station, 1948.
Rae Russel/Getty Images

Eatsa recently opened off the Embarcadero in San Francisco, with a wall of LCD screens, compartments full of quinoa bowls, and a notable lack of visible employees. Person-to-person interaction is limited to a quick orientation by a humanoid greeter. Ordering is done with an iPad, and the bowls, when they arrive, do so as if teleported into a cubby which blinks with one's name on it. Unseen is the human hand that prepared them. The opening was greeted with great halloos and halays as the reincarnation of the automat, that fixture of 20th-century urban dining. In fact there are some similarities. Minimal human interaction is chief among them, but the wall of food-filled cubicles is another echo. (Though, by that logic, everything from above-ground mausoleums to library card catalogues are automat homologues.) Like most harbingers of the life robotic, Eatsa is being heralded as the restaurant of the future. But can something so old be new again?

Three thousand miles away, the last of the great New York automats are languishing in a storage facility in the foothills of the Catskill mountains. They are all that is left from an dining empire which once fed 800,000 people a day. Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair. The machines, in various stages of disrepair, belong to a man named Steve Stollman, who used to sell them at his antique store on East Houston Street before he sold the building to make way for a luxury condo. (The condo never materialized.)

In their heyday, which stretched approximately from 1912 to 1950, automats were New York City's heart, stomach, and soul. Neil Simon called them the "Maxim's for the disenfranchised." In the grand dining rooms outfitted with stained glass windows and chrome decorative coffee dispensers, New Yorkers of every color and class could — and would — linger over freshly made macaroni-and-cheese, baked beans, and a panoply of pies. In the words of Stollman, the automat blew with the "winds of egalitarianism." In the most molten center of the world's melting pot, it was in the automatic dining rooms, free from the opprobrious gaze of waiters, that man could be alone, together.

American artist Edward Hopper's Automat, 1927.

The automat was where the lost could go, not to be found, but not to be chased out, either. Into the dark abyss of Horn & Hardart's famous New Orleans coffee — five cents a cup — they could stare for hours. Of course legion were the content and well-adjusted, fat on luck and hungry for pie, but it is the lost souls at the automat that resonate through time. Edward Hopper, the great painter of a certain era of urban sadness, named one of his most forlorn and famous paintings at an automat. As Alain de Botton describes the 1927 painting, a woman alone in a well-lit restaurant, "Automat is a picture of sadness — and yet it is not a sad picture... Others in the room may be on their own, men and women drinking coffee by themselves, similarly lost in thought, similarly distanced from society: a common isolation with the beneficial effect of lessening the oppressive sense within any one person that they are alone in being alone." In a way, the automat was both dehumanized and deeply humane.

In a way, the automat of the early 20th century was both dehumanized and deeply humane.

Well, that's part of the story. But it isn't the part that applies today. The more germane similarity is how both the automat and Eatsa seek to address the cost of labor and the exigencies of lunch hours. This, more than any cosmetic similarity, is what connects Eatsa to the Horn & Hardarts of yore. The public clamors for alacrity; capital deplores labor. These two truisms define our age, not just in restaurants but in every single facet of modern endeavour.

Both Eatsa and Horn & Hardart's find solutions in the replacement of humans with technology, just as the agricultural and manufacturing world did, as well. The biggest difference between the automats of then and now isn't that the waiters have been supplanted by machines, but that the customers have nearly become machines themselves. The dining room of Eatsa, such as it is, isn't a "Maxim's for the disenfranchised." It is simply a place to inhale one's quinoa while checking Instagram before returning to whatever high-minded start-up from whence the diner came. Make no mistake about it: Open-plan offices can be cubicles as well, and it is to these compartments that the now quinoa-engorged go to find even more ways to automat themselves into obsolescence.

Eatsa. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Eatsa. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But if automation of the front-of-house is perhaps the most visible way in which technology has replaced human employees, it is far from the only way. And in the future, it might not even be the most disruptive in the restaurant industry. Let's, for a moment, consider the men and women behind the little boxes. One of the ancillary benefits of the automat system is that the machinery functioned as a steel curtain. Horn & Hardart's were anything but worker-free. As David Freeland notes in his book Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville, "While automats were hailed by the thrifty populace as being 'waiter-free' and — even more appealing — 'tip-free,' someone had to cook the food, stock the little compartments, keep the floors clean, bus the tables, refill the sugar and condiments, and exchange larger coinage into nickels, since patrons rarely entered with enough nickels for a meal." Not only that, but the majority of Horn & Hardarts also functioned as traditional cafeterias complete with steam tables and automaton-like (but actually human) food scoop-ers. And these backroom gentry were poorly treated.

One of the ancillary benefits of the automat system is that the machinery functioned as a steel curtain.

The history of Horn & Hardarts is the history of union struggles. Strikes were frequent and costly from 1917 onwards. In fact, it was against the company that the AFL and CIO first co-ordinated their efforts in New York City on the evening of August 7, 1937 to pressure the company to accept collective bargaining and for better pay. According to Freedland, "In 1929, cooks made just 40 to 45 cents and busboys 20 to 22 cents per hour (roughly $2.64 to $5.60 an hour in today's currency). The standard working week lasted about 50 hours without overtime, and Horn & Hardart offered few paid holidays or vacations. No pension system was in place."

Today's fast-food workers hardly have it any better. According to a recent study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, nearly 40 percent of fast-food workers live in poverty and 52 percent rely on some sort of public assistance. (Happily, some states like New York and cities like San Francisco have recently passed legislation mandating a livable wage of $15 an hour.) By and large, we already treat our human laborers like automatons, but the bitter irony is that this movement toward fair wages will only hasten further automations as employers look to off-set labor costs with fewer employees.

A postcard advertising a 1920s-era automat. Photo: Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

So far at Eatsa, which has about five employees in the kitchen, questions of wages have been brushed aside. But Scott Drummond, the company's CEO, has been fairly clear that he plans to replace as many employees as he can with robots, as soon as he can. This should come as no surprise. Robots are coming, and in another difference between future models and automats of yore, and they're coming into the kitchen. As Martin Ford writes in his book, The Rise of the Robots:

In the United States and other advanced economies, the major disruption will be in the service sector — which is, after all, where the vast majority of workers are now employed. This trend is already evident in areas like ATMs and self-service checkout lanes, but in the next decade is likely to see an explosion of new forms of service sector automation, potentially putting millions of relatively low-wage jobs at risk.

Why should automation be confined to waiters when many — in fact, nearly all — of the jobs in fast-food rely on the easily replicable, repetitive process of food preparation? Already companies like Momentum Machines have perfected hamburger-making robots which can churn out 360 perfect patties an hour. And it is foolishness to think it is only fast food that will feel cold touch of a robot’s arm. Moley Robotics, an English firm, recently unveiled a robot chef that makes a mean crab bisque.

In fact, when one considers the traditional brigade de cuisine, as codified by Auguste Escoffier at the beginning of the first age of machines, it is simply an assembly line. And so it follows that the entremetier, the fry cook, the rotisseur, will soon go the way of the factory worker: toward obsolescence. Not everyone will go, but most people will. According to a recent — and incredibly depressing/interesting — BBC story, there is a 37 percent chance a chef will be replaced by a robot, but a 73 percent chance a cook will. (Waiters have a 90 percent chance of being replaced.)

Here, the last few humans are feverishly working to find technological solutions to obviate the need for human workers.

Ford makes the unassailable argument that it is possible, indeed even likely, that "increasing technological unemployment and environmental impact [will] unfold roughly in parallel, reinforcing and perhaps even amplifying each other." Nowhere is this better embodied than at Eatsa during lunch hour. Here, the last few humans are feverishly working to find technological solutions to obviate the need for human workers. Peering into their smartphones, these Silicon Valley workers await bowls of quinoa, served by machines and soon-to-be prepared by them. Meanwhile, the market for quinoa — due to its affordability, thanks in large part to the low cost of automation — heats ever hotter, making the grain even more unaffordable and uneconomic for the far-off Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian farmers, already suffering the adverse consequences of climate change.

On the other hand, automated restaurants, from Horn & Hardarts to Eatsa, do eliminate at least some low-wage largely dead-end jobs. Robots in the kitchen will, as well. And those quinoa farmers are abandoning their fields thanks to higher income, moving into urban centers to spend their money on other things like hamburgers and education. The future is a complex place and the future of restaurants a complicated moral equation. Thankfully, I’m sure, there’ll be a robot to solve it.