Originally, the machines in U.S. automats took only nickels. In the original format, a cashier sat in a change booth in the center of the restaurant, behind a wide marble counter with five to eight rounded depressions. The diner would insert the required number of coins in a machine and then lift a window, hinged at the top, and remove the meal, usually wrapped in waxed paper. The machines were replenished from the kitchen behind. All or most New York automats had a cafeteria-style steam table where patrons could slide a tray along rails and choose foods, which were ladled from tureens.
The first automat in the U.S. was opened June 12, 1902, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart; Horn & Hardart became the most prominent American automat chain. Inspired by Max Sielaff’s AUTOMAT Restaurants in Berlin, they became among the first 47 restaurants, and the first non-Europeans, to receive patented vending machines from Sielaff’s Berlin factory. The automat was brought to New York City in 1912 and gradually became part of popular culture in northern industrial cities.
The automats were popular with a wide variety of patrons, including Walter Winchell, Irving Berlin and other celebrities of the era. The New York automats were popular with unemployed songwriters and actors. Playwright Neil Simon called automats “the Maxim’s of the disenfranchised” in a 1987 article.