We Tried It: The Automat, A High-Tech, Modern Blast-From-the-Past
The Brooklyn Dumpling Shop debuts an updated version of the old concept of a vending machine restaurant–and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, Horn and Hardart– known as simply "the automat" –was the era's answer to fast food. With over 36 restaurants serving over 800,000 customers across Philadelphia and New York in its heyday, the waiterless, cafeteria-style restaurants housed art-deco-styled walls of tiny coin-operated glass doors containing a wide range of foods from soups, sandwiches, and sides like Mac 'n' Cheese and baked beans to plates of Salisbury steak, lobster Newburg, chicken pot pie, and their legendary fresh-brewed coffee.
Customers to the Horn and Hardart would approach a small window, drop nickels into a slot, and a door would swing open for them to collect their selection. On the other side of this life-sized 'vending machine', staff quickly replenished the meal for the next diner. Quality control was high, the meals were good, and the democratic setting attracted rich and poor alike. But as tastes changed and fast food became favored, the Horn and Hardart automat fell out of favor. The last one closed in 1991.
Though a few have tried the revive the concept, a coin-operated comfort food theme was thought to be too much of a nuisance to early-aughts customers on the verge of the digital age. While some, like one quinoa-bowl joint, piloted a more technology-embracing concept, its too-narrow audience blocked major success; the automat hasn't stuck. That is, until now.
The Brooklyn Dumpling Shop has everything going for it; a proven product (their standout dumplings originated at the team's fine dining restaurant the Brooklyn Chop House, where we tried them), a world eager to embrace food technology, and a global pandemic that has changed the way people dine and interact with restaurants. I stopped by this 21st-century automat in Manhattan's East Village on opening day to check out this everything-old-is-new-again dining concept.
Upon entering the space, it feels both high-tech and retro at the same time: there's a glassed-off kitchen called the 'dumpling lab' where the cooks prepare your food among retro-futuristic conveyor belts, hoppers, and ovens; oversized iPad-like kiosks serve as ordering stations near the wall of state-of-the-art food lockers shifting colors from red and blue, depending on whether they're holding hot or cold contents. Adjacent to that innovative main attraction stands a wall mural featuring an early 1950s, black-and-white photograph of Audrey Hepburn peering into a glass cubby at a Horn and Hardart as if she's looking into the future.
The digital menu reveals the extensive selection of the shop's 32 unusual sandwich and diner-food inspired dumplings, including Reuben, gyro, cheeseburger, and PB&J; their french onion and matzo ball spin on soup dumplings; and more traditional seafood and veggie options (including an Impossible Burger filling). They even have sweet dessert dumplings with Nutella and breakfast Cro'sumplings, a croissant-shaped dumpling filled with eggs, bacon, and other classic morning combos. There's something to satisfy every one of the 24 hours they'll be open.
The entire process is contactless, though staff is at the ready to help if needed. Place your order through your phone or at the kiosk; the transactions are cashless, but if you forgot your plastic, you can trade currency for crypto at the shop's Bitcoin ATM. When the order is ready you'll get a text; scan the barcode from your phone or the kiosk's paper receipt, and voila! The door containing your food magically opens. What's super-cool about this modern-day automat locker is that each compartment can be set to hot, cold, or ambient temperature, (glowing a corresponding red, blue or neutral), ensuring that your order will be served at its best, regardless of whether it's hot dumplings or an icy frosé. An internal UV light ensures cleanliness and safety for all who reach inside.
I loved the dumpling packaging; a sturdy stand-up zip-top bag that makes them easy to take on the go and eat while strolling or sitting. Open the bag, pour in the appropriate sauce, reach in with your chopsticks (or, ummm, fingers) and enjoy. And of course, they do not disappoint. I revisited two of my favorites – the lamb gyro and the Reuben, which were just as delicious as the ones I've had at their upscale restaurant. And now I have a new goal in life: to make sure I taste every single dumpling on the menu! (Salami and provolone, I'm coming for ya!)
I love that the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is New York to its core: owned by Robert "Don Pooh'' Cummins, a Black Brooklyn-born entrepreneur and music executive, and Stratis Morfogen, a Queens-born Greek American who grew up in his father's diners. Beijing-born Executive Chef Skinny Mei oversees the menu and has been working with the team at their other Asian-inspired restaurants since 2006. Everything about this partnership shows the best of this city. Each brings a bit of their own background, and together, they repackage it all into something that stands apart from the rest. A little bit of magic, if you will.
Though originally created as a nostalgic concept to reduce costs ("I did it for economic reasons," says Morfogen, who last visited a Horn and Hardat at the age of ten, when his dad took him before seeing Rocky in Times Square), the contactless service is obviously super-pandemic friendly. But safety perks aside, it's simply a fun destination that delivers delicious morsels in a convenient, exciting way. With the plan to be open 24 hours, the wide array of easy-to-eat munchie food, and sights set on expanding to locations in New Jersey and Connecticut later this year (and worldwide after that), there's no doubt that the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is on route to becoming a new classic.
The Brooklyn Dumpling Shop also offers a line of mail-order products to customers across the United States and will have their dumplings in Walmarts nationwide beginning in early August 2021.