We all love convenience and expect it now in many situations, but It is important to attempt to preserve those personal aspects that we treasure and have often taken for granted.
(Editor’s note: This is part two in a two-part series on what the original Automat can teach today’s convenience services industry.)
With the pandemic, sterile machines are suddenly our best friends. Suddenly, on account of the fear of contagion, we are happier to keep our distance and ignore the presence of others. New industries are growing up to serve this new reality.
As I noted in last week’s blog, we know the original Automat gave us the first glimpse of the mechanization of things being sold as an unalloyed benefit without even a glimpse at the potential downside, but what will happen when the pandemic is over, and we begin to feel free to explore our surroundings and once again seek the companionship of others?
Is the next generation of vending machines going to know your name too and what you prefer? Probably, because it is not only possible, it is necessary, to help you get over what you are missing from the days of the luncheonette, when the waitress knew your name and you enjoyed the company of others. But the path to that future, where both our needs for convenience and a genuinely social experience converge, won’t be easy. There will be plenty of road bumps.
Pressure for efficiency rises
When the new, higher minimum wage is passed, as it might be in a Democratic administration, restaurants everywhere are going to be looking for a way to replace expensive human labor with cheaper, more reliable, un-unionized robots and machines of every kind. What kind of a world will this be? Is it one that we want to live in, that we can survive in? Can there really be a balance between efficient and cheap mechanization and the warm, human and interactive experience that we have always sought?
If that is what we demand, that is what we will get. If not, we will be losing something besides jobs. We will be missing the essence of life, the connection between us and our social and physical environment.
How can the benefits of mechanization and digitalization be integrated into a personalized process that frees us from deadening tasks and frees us up to concentrate on the other aspects of our existence that enhance our lives, instead of supplanting our essential experiences?
In some ways, the current iterations of the Automat experience, as exemplified by Brooklyn Dumpling Shop in New York City and Automat Kitchen in New Jersey, point to this new reality. (Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is just a block away from an attempt in 2007 to update the Automat experience with modern equipment called the BAMN Automat, which failed in part because unlike the original Automat, the fare was not delicious. If you don’t deliver the goods, a gimmick will not earn you loyal customers.) These new iterations appear to be carrying forth the food quality of the original Automat while combining that with modern conveniences.
The Automat married quality with convenience
Mr. Horn and Mr. Hardart, founders of the original Automat, were adamant that the quality of their products remain as high as possible and had a “bible” that demanded that proportions and ingredients be kept the same throughout the 90-year history of the establishment that bore their name. They had daily sessions where random samples of their fare were sampled and woe be to whomever would do anything to harm their reputation.
We may have since gotten much better at providing temperature controls than we were then, just as we have improved our payment methods to include digital pre-payment and credit cards, but at the same time, now we have also lost something when we are expected to stand at kiosks and put in orders and then spend time, our most precious commodity, waiting for our orders to process and be delivered. While digital pre-ordering is attempting to remedy this problem, this can be a clumsy and unsatisfying way to order and you must be able to calculate the time factor with some accuracy.
We are, most definitely, in a time when habits are going to change and that means both benefits and possible hazards in trying to deliver the “best of both worlds.” It is easy to see the upside, but much more difficult to guess what might be the hidden problems that this will bring. For instance, if we eliminate all of our jobs and replace our labor with robots, how will we make a living and how will that world look?
Standardization and consistency in products have become more expected, but there is no longer a named person who will make certain that the ingredients in something are not replaced by a cheaper product, or keep some chemical, with unknown long-term side effects, from creeping into the recipe. As the human factor is further diminished, we are going to be missing something and may not even know it.
We all love convenience and expect it now in many situations, but this will not be the same world we return to. It is important to attempt to preserve those aspects of it that we treasure and have always taken for granted. I want to still be able to know the name of somebody who is a regular part of my life and not be surrounded by lifeless mechanisms.
Questions we need to ask
Do we really want to abandon all of our friendly neighborhood haunts and replace them with machines?
Are there ways to integrate these helpful devices into a socially rich surrounding?
Must arcade machines always emphasize violence because young males are often drawn towards the most competitive activities?
Can’t we try harder to integrate natural, educational and more cooperative ideas into these experiences?
Shouldn’t our primary goal be to create a peaceful world and nutritious fare for our family members, friends and everyone else?
We can do this, and probably had better, lest we accept the lowest common denominator rather than our highest aspirations as what we most desire and deserve. That does not mean not profiting well from our work, just that it is not the be all, and end all, of our lives.