As a youth, my mouth watered and eyes grew bigger whenever I had that chance to dine in an Automat, joyous with a handful of quarters. This was distinct a dining experience, beyond the typical restaurant or catered event. As authors Lorraine Diehl and Marianne Hardart chronical in the their book, The Automat, the operation was “A coin-operated glass-and-chrome wonder, Horn & Hardart’s Automats revolutionized the way Americans ate when they opened up in Philadelphia and New York in the early twentieth century. In a country where the industrial revolution had just taken hold, eating at a restaurant with self-serving vending machines rather than waitresses and Art Deco architecture instead of stuffy dining rooms was an unforgettable experience. The Automat served freshly made food for the price of a few coins, and no one made a better cup of coffee.” The experience was wondrous for a small lad. And, if we had a complaint we could speak to the cashier or just shout through one of those windows.
The Automat was a real forerunner to that expansive vending arena. We now have all sorts of choices, from candies to soda to sandwiches and retail goods. If abroad, you can throw in alcoholic beverages and sexual paraphernalia. The emphasis is still on fresh food products, speedy fulfillment and reasonable price. But, it is not as much fun nowadays, when you consider the endless row of Automat windows with splendid choices in each slot. Oh, happy day!
We do have some comparable examples and hybrids out there. Fast food and some quasi-casual dining spots are into self-service and policing (think of those stares you receive when you forget to self-bus your leftovers and dining debris). In many restaurants the dining aura is particularly pedestrian. Now, we are experimenting with technology to place our orders, play games as we wait, and pay for our meal – all with a clever hand-held device. It sure would be more fun pushing those coins into window slots and be rewarded with hot mac and cheese. What can you say about freshness? This is a vending challenge for some, as it depends upon usage and delivery time to the operation which those machines serve. Nothing is worse than a tired tuna sandwich or Draconian coffee. Lastly, how does the vendor know about the user experience? Drop a note, make the toll free call, speak with the manager on duty at the plant or office park? Immediacy and response is often less that acceptable. So, are we using the vending machine at our own risk, just like swimming at the town pool. At the automat we had far more control and a voice. In the vending world, you can tell how many M&M’s are moving but hard to tell what some customers have had to undergo to reach those riches – losing coins, shaking the machine, banging the selection button and the like. A good Mystery Shop program could address those problems. It is a tough business.
Is there a way to return to earlier times where everything was simpler, particularly dining? You tend to wonder why Automats disappeared. You would think that if properly located, these operations would thrive. Just think of putting your ear next to the window and hear the magic from the kitchen on the other side. “Madge, the cherry pie is moving. Let’s plate some more!” Old memories die hard.
John Hendrie is the author of the LRA blog, focusing on anything and everything about customer experience. LRA Worldwide is the leading global provider of Customer Experience Measurement services for multinational companies with complex customer interactions. For over 30 years, LRA’s innovative brand standards audits, quality assurance inspections, mystery shopping programs, research, and consulting services have helped ensure our clients deliver consistent, memorable, and differentiated experiences to their customers. Many of the world's preeminent global hospitality brands, as well as companies in the gaming, dining, healthcare, sports and entertainment, real estate, retail and travel industries choose LRA to help them measure and improve the customer experience. For more information, visit www.LRAWorldwide.com.
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