Special Dispensation: Getting Food from Vending Machines

Special Dispensation: Getting Food from Vending Machines

More than a century ago, Horn & Hardart revolutionized American eating with the introduction of the Automat, an automated cafeteria where a nickel or two would buy a hot plate of macaroni and cheese or a chilled slice of lemon meringue pie.

It was a new concept of self-service dining: Customers would approach a wall of windowed compartments, insert a coin and take out a plate of freshly prepared food. Behind that wall, workers restocked the compartments with food prepared at an off-site commissary and shipped to as many as 40 Automats across New York City. There was a well-lit seating area where diners could enjoy their meals, along with Horn & Hardart’s famous hot coffee.

The first Automat — a precursor to both fast-food restaurants and vending machines — opened in 1902 in Philadelphia. But Automats quickly became associated with New York City, where citizens from all walks of life rubbed elbows over lunch and dinner amid the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.

“The Automat offered really low prices, really good food, and clean and safe surroundings,” says food historian Laura Shapiro. Automats enjoyed their heyday through the 1930s but began to decline within 10 years, she explains. “After World War II, a lot of people moved to the suburbs, and people weren’t eating dinner in the city. The prices of everything went up, food went up, labor costs went up. They couldn’t keep up that trio of price, quality and nice surroundings.”

The last Automat closed in New York in 1991. But its spirit lives on in food vending machines that connect consumers with fast-food favorites, agricultural products, regional specialties and luxury and novelty foods.

Where the Automat was a revelation of the Industrial Revolution, today’s vending machines reflect the realities of a more mobile global populace whose access to food exists in disparate contexts. The foods distributed from contemporary iterations of the Automat aren’t meant to be enjoyed sitting at a table with real cutlery at traditional mealtimes. Instead, customers can access products at any hour.

Automats used to combine the ease of self-service with the sociability of a cafe. Click image to enlarge.

Audrey Hepburn chooses a sandwich at an Automat.

Eggs are available in Japan from machines that resemble Automats.

In Germany, consumers can access meats, cheeses and other deli items with a push of a button.

This can be a boon to rural consumers who don’t have 24-hour shops nearby, as well as to farmers seeking additional points of contact to distribute their products. You see this with egg vending machines in Japan, a pecan farm in Central Texas boasting a vending machine stocked with nuts and full-sized pecan pies, and the Applestone Meat Company in Accord, New York, which operates a 24/7 butcher shop called the Meat-O-Mat inside its meat-processing plant. The machines feature hormone- and antibiotic-free beef, pork and lamb in various cuts and are restocked every day.

In a sign that such machines could be a disruptive force in agriculture, a vending machine in Japan called Chef’s Farm can produce 60 heads of lettuce per day using 40-watt light bulbs. Designed for use in restaurants, the machine can grow up to five types of vegetables on multiple seed shelves in a temperature-controlled environment.

Vending machines also reflect regional foodways. Machines in China chill live hair crabs in a sort of suspended animation to ensure their freshness and preserve the flavor of the claws. Sake vending machines in Japan showcase rice from the Niigata prefecture. And machines in France dispense fresh-baked baguettes, Comté cheese and andouillete sausages.

These machines can even be instructive. Take the edible insect vending machine at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Houston. Patrons can snack on chocolate-covered bugs and chips made with ground cricket flour while learning about how other cultures incorporate insects into their diets.

For eaters who value convenience, there are plenty of options for mechanized grab-and-go food, from pizza in Italy to salads in jars in Chicago and piping-hot burgers and croquettes in Dutch FEBO shops. With walls of coin-operated windows displaying hot snacks, FEBO shops closely resemble the Automat and elicit similar feelings of nostalgia.

“I lived in a little town near den Haag when I was 10 or 11 years old,” says Julie Ann Holden of Austin, Texas. “I took the train to school every day and would frequently stop at the automat in Central Station for a Kaassoufflé [a kind of Dutch fried quesadilla].” There are even vending machines for luxury food items like caviar and champagne, perfectly chilled for immediate consumption at holiday parties or to give as presents to the most discriminating people on shoppers’ lists.

Making a roast? Swing by the Meat-O-Mat, a 24/7 vending machine butcher shop in Accord, New York. Click image to enlarge.

Fresh pecan pie is available at a Berdoll Pecan Candy & Gift Company in Cedar Creek, Texas.

These aren’t your standard chips. At the Museum of Natural Sciences in Houston, cricket-based snacks are part of the learning experience.

As in the Automats, these machines are replenished regularly, but few offer dining tables and chairs. Instead, the foods are meant to be consumed while in transit, whether while waiting for a flight in an airport terminal or walking the streets of Amsterdam. This extreme automation — such as at kiosks like EatZa in San Francisco and New York, where diners place orders for custom-made quinoa bowls via iPads and retrieve their freshly made meals from sterile compartments — amplifies how today’s vending machines speak to a different set of needs and desires for today’s consumer than the somewhat social Automat of yesteryear.

Gone are the days in which people sought out a full meal and maybe a little conversation at an Automat diner. But the dream of quick, easy access to all sorts of food is alive and well. At any hour of the day, People can get the food they want and need, from comfort food to hard-to-access ingredients. It’s not difficult to imagine that, along with meal-kit, grocery, and restaurant delivery services, contemporary vending machines could be instrumental in further disrupting the way our food comes to us.

 There’s going to be an Automat movie! Keep up with the film’s progress at automatmovie.com.

Food Movers: Staple or Delicacy, It’s in the Can

Food Movers: Staple or Delicacy, It’s in the Can

What do you need in a bomb shelter? Water, flashlights, blankets, a radio and, of course, canned food.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, many a family fallout shelter was stocked with canned food, including Multi-Purpose Food (MPF), a low-cost, shelf-stable, protein- and nutrient-rich food supplement manufactured by General Mills to be consumed “in case of emergency or disaster.” MPF, first conceived in the 1940s as a remedy for widespread hunger in postwar Europe, became a symbol of Cold War preparedness.

Since the mid-20th century, canned food has been a staple of the American diet. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, the average American household has 24 cans of food in their pantry. And while the technology of canned food focuses on creating a shelf-stable product, the significance of canned food in food culture is anything but fixed.

For as long as people have moved food from its production location to market, packaging has played a key role, from product durability and trade efficiency to product differentiation and marketing. Canned food — durable, stackable and completely sealed — has transformed multiple links along the food supply chain since its first appearance nearly 250 years ago. Military campaigns, with their widely distributed provisioning requirements, have often led to innovations in the processing, packaging and distribution of food, particularly sources of protein. Credit goes to the Dutch Navy for being the first, in the late 18th century, to package hot beef covered with hot fat in tinned iron canisters.

The first to publish on the process of canning — preserving food in sealed containers — was Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1809, writing about a technique using glass containers. Fellow Frenchman Phillipe de Girard devised a canning process using tin and collaborated with Englishman Peter Durand, who obtained a patent in 1810. Durand promptly sold the patent to the British company Donkin, Hall and Gamble, which provided meat in tinned wrought-iron cans for the British Army and Royal Navy.


Now a pantry staple, canned food was initially conceived for use beyond a conventional kitchen. Metal cans could function as a serving container and, in a pinch, be heated over open flame. The sealed and opaque quality of the container prevented oxygen and light from breaking down food and protected it from contamination, thereby extending the product’s shelf life. Advances in metallurgy eventually helped cans become the cost-effective, disposable food containers now commonplace in kitchens and pantries.


a low-cost, shelf-stable, protein- and nutrient-rich product made by General Mills for use in “emergency or disaster.”

Cans are easily stacked and difficult to destroy, criteria that make them indispensible to military food supply chains. Contents can be cooked right inside the can, offering the prospect of a warm meal to anyone with access to a flame.

Three types of metals are now commonly used for cans. Tinplate is made by coating steel with a thin layer of tin, which is highly corrosion resistant. Cans made of aluminum — corrosion resistant and highly malleable — can be fabricated from two rather than three pieces. Electrolytic chromium-coated steel (ECCS, also known as tin-free steel), introduced in the 1960s to respond to fluctuations in the supply and cost of tin, has a higher melting point than tinplate but is less resistant to corrosion.

As the fabrication processes for rolling, shaping, soldering and welding metal improved, so did cans. They became thinner and more durable. Sealing methods evolved, too — some early cans were soldered closed with lead. A firmer understanding of microorganisms also has changed canning practices. Botulism from commercially produced canned food is now a rarity. Sustained high heat in processing kills spores of the Clostridium botulinum bacterium, which can otherwise survive in low-oxygen environments.

Opening metal cans initially required brute force and assumed the availability of heavy tools. The first metal can openers weren’t patented until the 1850s — some 50 years after the container itself came into use. Subsequently, market expansion led to the engineering of new opening strategies, which in turn made cans increasingly popular. Key-wind opening systems, which include a key with which to pull away a strip of metal (usually on the top of a can or tin), and later, easy-open ring tabs, made for portable, pocket-sized, accessory-free foodstuffs.

Like other products now considered relatively common, such as chocolate, 19th-century canned food took on special significance for a growing middle class. Take, for instance, ready-to-eat seafood “delicacies.” Comparable to predecessors such as salt cod and pickled herring, seafood cooked (or smoked) and packed in cans or tins offered a way to expand the market for seafood harvested in a specific location.

Canned sardines are but one example of a product that emerged as a delicacy and then became a crucial wartime ration during the two world wars. At its peak in 1939, the central California fishery associated with Cannery Row in Monterey landed 460,000 tons of sardines for the year. Today, canned sardines and anchovies, as well as other canned seafood products, cover a broad market range, from in-house brands for major supermarket chains to restaurants offering carefully selected tinned fish delicacies.

Cans have come a long way — evolving from opaque metal vessels to the TruVue clear plastic can, a kind of jar hybrid.

Before canned food, groceries were full-service stores, where grocers measured and gathered your order together. Prepackaged cans, with labels as built-in advertising, enabled consumers to choose and pick up goods themselves.

In 1917, the Piggly Wiggly market chain opened the first self-service grocery in Memphis, moving cans out from behind the counter into displays, and then shelves. This image is from the mid-1950s.


Food science and packaging technology created canned food, but grocers introduced it to the American household. Canned food transformed the role of grocers as well as the design of stores. As a prepackaged good of consistent weight, with labels as built-in advertising, canned food could practically sell itself. In 1917, the Piggly Wiggly market chain opened the first self-service grocery in Memphis, moving cans out from behind the counter into displays, and then shelves, where consumers could pick up cans, read labels and put them into carts. After World War II, the housing boom, the expansion of supermarkets, the practice of driving to shop for groceries, and the greater number of women working outside the home all helped normalize canned food as part of the modern American diet.

Artful labeling and package design is an integral part of branding, particularly for products sold in opaque containers. The rounded corners of rectangular metal tins of fish are practical, as well as emblematic of product contents. Streamlined form and graphic design evoke a sense of efficiency. Many original label motifs persist as recognizable brands today. In 1962, Andy Warhol painted the first of his Campbell’s cans series — 32 paintings that represent each offering in the Campbell’s brand — elevating the Campbell’s soup can into Pop Art.

The most money ever paid for a can of soup was $11.7 million for Andy Warhol’s Small Tom Campbell Soup Can (Torn Pepper Pot), one of 32 paintings in his soup can series, first exhibited in 1962.


In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) requiring all packaged food to list nutritional information relative to Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA). For the first time, consumers could compare the nutritional content of foods before buying them. Since then, processing improvements have enabled the use of fewer preservatives and increased nutrient retention. Nutrition research has also been important, for instance, in clarifying that canned fruits and vegetables do not make up a major source of sodium in the American adult diet.

For many people, canned food is a more nutritious choice than other food options, especially when accounting for seasonal availability. New packaging technologies — such as bisphenol A (BPA)–free see-through plastic cans now coming on the market — prompt the question: Does being able to see what’s in the can ensure that it is fresh, flavorful and healthy? The market will decide.

From newfangled packaging for military rations to convenience-food wonder for postwar households, the simple can ensured that foods grown or produced in one location could safely be consumed many hundreds of miles away. And while its status may have ebbed and flowed — from nifty new technology to cheap holder of less-than-fresh ingredients, and back to retro packaging of exotic delicacies — canned food remains a staple for pantries and fallout shelters the world over.

Need a refresher on how to play Kick the Can? Check out this helpful video.

Food Movers: Paper or Plastic?

Food Movers: Paper or Plastic?

There was a time in our country’s history when farm-to-table wasn’t a trend, it was a necessity — especially when it came to dairy consumption.

If a family wanted milk, that milk came straight from the family’s cow and had to be consumed or turned into butter or cheese on milking day. Otherwise, it would spoil.

As farms and cities got bigger and fewer people kept their own cows, delivering fresh dairy became the milkman’s job. But the new process was far from perfect: Hand-delivered bottles were heavy and needed to be returned and sterilized, and without refrigeration, milk would still go bad within a day. Another problem: Glass jugs break.

Legend holds that the inventor of the paper milk carton we know today dropped a glass jug one morning, sending milk and glass everywhere. In his frustration, John Van Wormer patented a paper milk carton that could be shipped flat and assembled as needed at the dairy. (Until this point, dairies used G.W. Maxwell’s earlier paper milk carton, which did not fold flat.)

Van Wormer’s early Pure-Pak milk cartons, patented in 1915, were made of paperboard and sealed with wax, which prevented the milk from saturating the paperboard. The gable-top closure helped maintain freshness during transport while eliminating the need for a cap. And unlike glass bottles, milk cartons were lightweight and disposable: They could travel farther and didn’t need to come back.


Although G.W. Maxwell gets credit for creating the gable-topped milk carton, toy factory owner John Van Wormer invented a carton that could fold flat, a revolutionary efficiency in the milk chain.

Patent drawing for milk container that could fold flat, invented by John R. Van Wormer.

While people had a hard time letting go of their beloved glass bottles, the coated carton slowly gained popularity, and as that transition began taking hold, so did refrigeration. By the late 1940s, electric refrigerators were in most American homes, small family-owned dairies were consolidating and the milkman was securing his Rockwellian role in the lives of American families and neighborhoods that soon became nostalgia.

While neither was necessarily dependent on the other, the milk carton, owes some of its success to advances in cold chain technology — a series of refrigerated tanks, trucks (“reefers”) — and storage units that ensure dairy and other perishables like meat and produce make it from the farm to the grocery store without spoiling.

Today, the value of cold chain markets that support perishable food distribution globally is estimated at around $250 billion. And while many countries lag in their cold chain facility development, the United States annually moves some three billion gallons of chilled milk through a cold chain so efficient that customers can buy refrigerated milk at nearly every gas station and corner store in the country.

As other countries expand their own cold chains, the U.S. cold chain industry stands to profit from rapid growth. According to the Global Cold Chain Alliance, refrigerated warehouse capacity around the world increased by 20 percent from 2012 to 2014, and three of the top five refrigerated warehouse operators are U.S. companies. But most of that milk is no longer being moved in Van Wormer’s carton: The milk carton may have solved the problem of breaking glass, but plastic jugs have overcome some shortcomings of cartons: They are less likely to leak and easier to re-seal.

According to Glen Harrington, director of manufacturing for the Borden Dairy Company, milk manufacturers were beginning to make their own gallon and half-gallon plastic jugs by the 1970s. When produced on a large scale, Harrington says, it’s more cost effective for dairy companies to make cartons in-house than it is to buy them.

Paperboard milk and cream cartons are still in use, but these days, they’re lined with polyethylene, a plastic used for food-safe packaging. In many countries outside the U.S., milk is sold unrefrigerated in shelf-stable cartons, like the ones used stateside for soups and broths. The milk is usually pasteurized at a higher temperature to extend shelf life. The downsides to this type of shelf-stable milk, according to Harrington, are that it typically costs more and doesn’t taste as good.

“We’ve got a good system,” says Harrington. “Why would we spend more to make it taste worse if we could just move it around fresh?”


The design of plastic milk bottles evolved quickly in the mid-1960s, when the handled jug as we now know it was invented. The design not only saved dairies money, it encouraged customers to buy a gallon of milk at a time, a large amount compared to the smaller quantities sold outside the U.S.