Some items cost as little as a nickel. The Automats were particularly popular during the Depression; and their Macaroni and Cheese, Baked Beans, and Creamed Spinach were
popular offerings. Despite the low prices and lack of table service, the dining experience was somewhat luxurious, with Art Deco architecture that rivaled the lobby of the Chrysler Building.
Unlike modern fast food restaurants, Automat food was served on non-plastic dishes, with metal utensils, and drinks were in glasses.
A fast-fingered cashier sat in a change booth in the center of the restaurant, behind a wide marble counter. She accepted paper money and coins from customers, and give them nickels. A customer would insert the required number of coins in a slot, and then slide open a window to remove the food. The machines were filled from a kitchen behind the windows.
The Automats became the world's largest restaurant chain, with 180 eateries serving 800,000 customers a day at its peak. The company also popularized the notion of take-out food, with the slogan "Less work for Mother."
The format was threatened by the growth of suburbs and the rise of fast food restaurants with drive-thru windows in the 1950s. By the 1970s, Automat appeal was strictly nostalgic. Also, inflation made food too expensive to be bought conveniently with coins, before dollar bill slots were common.
The last American Automat closed in 1991.
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