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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Are You Ready for the Next Step in Casino Cuisine?

8 October 2001

Not everybody's old enough to remember, let alone have been to, an Automat. If you're picturing a display at the 1939 World's Fair showing robots that wandered around the house vacuuming the rugs, or a seance at which a psychic summons spirits from beyond to speak to participants' minds from within, you're off track.

Automats were coin-operated "waiterless" restaurants. Horn and Hardart opened America's first Automat in 1902 in Philadelphia, expanding to New York in 1912. The equipment was initially imported from Germany, where the concept and name were already proven. Unseen workers backloaded fresh food into compartments, on rotating trays, behind glass-fronted doors. Consumers, in front, dropped coins into slots. This released the doors, giving diners access to the items. When the doors closed, the trays indexed so new portions were available for the next customers. Originally, the slots all took nickels. And, no small part of the adventure of a meal was getting coins from the "Nickel Thrower."

The Automat was an instant success, remaining popular well into the 1950s. Any resemblance to today's crass food vending machines, with preservative-laden ersatz edibles prepared and prepackaged who knows where or when, is purely superficial.

Automats peaked during the Great Depression when a hearty meal such as soup, macaroni and cheese, pie, and coffee could be had for four nickels. The last Automat closed in 1991, a victim of the fast food McIdiom. Its gleaming chrome-and-glass serving area is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

But, what goes around comes around. And I have an idea. When it sweeps the country, you can say you read it here first. Automats as the next logical step from the all-you-can-eat casino buffet. Not just because of the obvious connection between slot machines and coin-operated commissaries or because "retro" is hot.

Here's the lowdown. It's no secret that the buffet is the highlight of a casino visit for many solid citizens on days when they don't actually hit the jackpot. Especially when the meal is free because they have a newspaper, bus, or other coupon. Or, better yet, a comp showing how much the casino bosses admire their gambling prowess and appreciate their action and loyalty.

One problem with buffets is that certain patrons unfairly get more money's worth than others. Often, they simply eat more. Sometimes, they know enough to skip cheap belly-busters like pasta salad and go right for the shrimp or prime ribs. And, now and then, they slip food into their fanny packs and sneak it out. Another difficulty is that if individuals aren't too hungry, or prefer budget puddings to extravagant pies and cakes for dessert, the casino still deducts the full price from their comp points. A third limitation is that those who haven't accrued enough credits and don't have coupons face the indignity of paying cash for a buffet or pretending they didn't want to eat and doing without.

My solution is the Compomat. The clueless can always put coins in the slots. But insiders would slide their Player cards into the readers beside the doors and the cost would be subtracted from their accounts. Anyone with a coupon could exchange it for a new pre-loaded card or have the credits added to their earned totals.

Compomats would offer at least as great a variety as buffets. Huge portions are presumed since casinos that chintzed on volume would quickly be forsaken by all but the lightest eaters or biggest suckers. Naturally, there'd be a "dogs' breakfast special" for buffet buffs particular to platters piled with heaps of everything. Most bettors would earn enough points during a visit to overeat adequately. Those whose action formerly wouldn't rate a comp could still get something. And, folks who only snacked, or kept to low-end dishes, wouldn't waste their credits.

I haven't patented the Compomat, and offer it to gaming public free of charge. This magnanimity was inspired by my happening upon the ensuing adage by the ageless odist, Sumner A Ingmark:

When service to humanity seems frivolous inanity,
It may be pride or vanity or means to keep one's sanity.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.