Imagine a restaurant without any service staff. No waiters or waitresses, and no one behind a counter. All the food and drink comes from coin-operated dispensers.
It sounds like the kind of pop-up concept cafe we might see opening in Shoreditch today. But London had its first 'automatic buffet' over a century ago.
The novelty, already trialled on the continent, came to London in August 1901, with a demonstration at Earls Court. Images of the time show an attractive corner cafe (albeit a temporary structure), with snaking queues waiting to get inside.
This first pop-up was only a limited success. Reports from the time suggest that diners were a bit sheepish about the tech, and relied on attendants to help get the food. In other words, it wasn't all that automatic. The cafe did offer one big advantage to customers, however: 'The machine does not ask you to "remember the waiter," and thus it does away with the baneful tipping system."
The experiment was followed up a year later, when a new Automatic Buffet opened in Embankment Gardens at the behest of London County Council. The concept cafe was housed in a specially constructed building at the Charing Cross end of the park. Lined with mirrors, mahogany and marble, it looked rather grand:
The cafe served up sandwiches, cakes, pastries, teas and 'temperance drinks without number', all by coin-operated machine. 'One prowls along a counter lined with glass panels,' wrote one customer, 'and after due examination decides on action.'
Prices were cheap (a 'good feast' for sixpence), and the food 'decent'. 36 people could be seated inside this cosy chalet, with many more tables outside in the gardens. The cafe proved immensely popular, recording over 10,000 visitors on one summer's day.
It soon spawned a sequel, at Lord's Cricket Ground. This was the first automatic cafe in Britain to dispense alcohol. You could even buy a measure of Scotch. Wellington Barracks near Buckingham Palace also installed an automatic beer machine in the wake of the craze.
Alas, as with all pop-ups, the novelty eventually wore off. The Embankment cafe muddled along for a few years, but seems to have vanished after the summer of 1906.
Automation has since become commonplace in the food industry — from the ubiquitous self-service coffee machines to conveyor-belt restaurants like Yo! Sushi.
It is still rare, though, to find a fully self-operated eatery. Even in our highly mechanised era, people still like to chat to the person behind the counter.
Images via the British Newspaper Archive.