High-Tech Snack Shop (Jun, 1958)

A long but very entertaining article detailing all of the latest in kitchen gadgetry. Among the marvels: infrared heat lamps, the microwave oven, a magnetically driven chocolate mixer, french fry and burger makers and a polisher that pummels your silverware with 1/8″ shot. The author also goes into all of the ways restaurants can increase their sales including allowing people to order through a microphone and speaker (because people like to hear themselves talk), good lighting and perfect consistency from day to day.

Overall it kind of sounds like a modern day McDonalds…

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By James Joseph

AN OLD-HAND CHEF, venturing out of retirement, recently spent but an hour in a restaurant’s chromed and push-buttoned kitchen before turning in his white hat and apron for good.

“You don’t need a cook,” he snorted. “What you need is an electronics engineer!”

Like that old-timer, you have only to look behind (and under) the counter of your favorite hamburger place to eyewitness a revolution that’s both gastronomic and electronic:

You order a two-minute egg and get it timed to a split-second by an ingenious device that dunks the yoker into a cauldron of water, hefts it out again precisely as ordered. A submerged immersion heater, as impervious to water as a marsh-bred mallard, keeps the cauldron boiling.

“Warm ’em a bit,” you tell the waitress —and watch as she pops a plateful of rolls beneath a 1000-watt quartz lamp. Thirty seconds later the rolls are piping hot. Yet, miraculously, the plate’s only warm to the touch (saving you, the patron, a blistered pinky). Secret of this warming inequality: The quartz lamp’s infrared rays which, though absorbed by edibles (thus heating them), are reflected by the plate’s ceramic whiteness (the reason most restaurant china is white).

More confounding is that Silex of hot chocolate, continuously agitated by a stainless-steel paddle. Search as you will, you can find no mechanical connection—no wires or couplings—between the paddle and whatever it is that keeps it spinning. Magic? No, it’s merely magnetism a la carte: A motor-driven magnet, concealed just above the Silex, turns the paddle (doing electronically a chore once assigned the waitress).

Or maybe you’ve stared in disbelief as a chef thrust a carton of chili—fresh from the freezer—into the stainless steel maw of an electronic oven.

“He’s going to burn it!” your wife winces. She means, of course, the paper container. Yet 30 seconds later the chili’s steaming. What of its fragile container? The paper’s not even singed. You’ve eye-witnessed cooking by microwave, a restaurant-tested miracle which, like many another nurtured in pay-as-you-leave places, will one day be as home-common as the stove you now use.

In microwave cooking, high-frequency “radar” beams (about 2450 megacycles) bombard the food, yet generate not a whit of heat in the oven itself. Nor do the rays —emanating from a magnetron similar to those powering radar—affect the container, whether it be aluminum, paper or porcelain. Instead, they concentrate singlemind-edly upon what’s to be broiled, boiled, baked or basted. Water, in a paper cup, boils in 10 seconds. It takes but nine minutes to roast a three-pound chicken (compared to an hour and twenty minutes by less electronic means). A six-ounce potato is baked and ready for garnishing in 120 seconds (your wife’s stove needs 45 minutes for the same job).

Skeptically, perhaps, you’ve run a forefinger under the menu’s “Today’s Special,” —a T-bone that’s bill-of-fared at exactly 16 ounces. How, you wonder, can the restaurateur be brazen enough to advertise an entree of such precise weight, particularly when it’s as unwieldy as steak? The answer: An electric exact-weight slicing machine which meticulously serves up beef (and even fish and chops) to within a fraction of an ounce, just as the menu describes it.

Maybe, Saturday-nighting it to a swank dinner place, you’ve been puzzled when the maitre d’ hotel assigned you a table— without glancing up from his desk. Rather than scan the tables, his eyes were fixed on a central table-control board. For every table there was a light. When it flashed (a button pushed by the waitress), he knew the table was vacant and forthwith motioned you to a seat.

Your favorite restaurant? It’s wired for electronics, piped with music, scientifically lighted (to lure appetite-appeal from every delectable morsel), and geared to gadgets and push buttons.

Electric eyes turn on water spigots when a waitress thrusts a glass into their beams. Whole loaves of bread disappear into countertop “lowerators”, a slice at a time popping up as needed. Cups, glasses and plates do the same disappearing act. A fountain man pushes a button to trigger an electric solenoid which, tapping concealed reservoirs of soda water and syrups, mixes and delivers any of four flavors, six fizzy ounces in exactly three seconds. The chef tosses a batch of raw spuds into the screw-conveyor of a deep-fat fryer, doesn’t touch nor tend the french fries until they’re dumped, ready to eat, on your plate. Day-old buns, rolls and muffins are chucked into an oven-like “freshener” which, bathing them in steam, turns them fresh as though baked this morning. Bread, dropped into a toaster, is automatically lowered on a miniature slice-wide elevator, the toasting cycle electronically timed and gauged.

But it’s in the restaurant’s kitchen—behind doors actuated by electric eyes—that the culinary revolution seethes strongest.

There, a light flashes on an electric oven, telling the baker that the oven has reached its dial-set temperature. Close by, a mechanical robot methodically fills 60 portion-size paper cups a minute with french dressing, catsup or mustard—condiments destined to nestle beside your hamburger.

With a purposeful roar, a burnishing machine blasts a load of silverware (fresh from an automatic washer) with bouncing 1/8-inch diameter steel shot—quick-polishing knives, forks and spoons in minutes rather than the hours required when the chore was manual.

Near by, an electric high-compression cooker—its internal steam pressure 15 pounds to the square inch—turns out a 22-pound batch of peas in just 60 seconds (at least ten times faster than boiling atop a conventional range). What’s more, this nearly waterless method preserves vitamins and minerals and that fresh-from-the-field taste and color.

In the kitchen’s far corner stands a four-spit infrared barbecue, its 42 broiler-size chickens automatically rotated, its 9200 watts of deep-reaching heat basting the birds in their own succulent juices.

White-hatted, a cook flicks the controls of a stainless steel gadget that looks for all the world like a super-sized barber’s clippers. Attached to an electric meat chopper, the automaton extrudes 40 to 80 hamburger patties every minute, each precisely sized and shaped (a lightning-fast guillotine knife administers the coup de grace). With a turn of an adjustment, patty thickness can be varied between slim 1/4 and hefty 3/4- inch. Another control delivers burgers either square or rectangular (to fit the bun). Still another regulates patty weight (depending whether the restaurant features modest portions or those Bumstead half-pound giants).

In a sanitary sanctum all its own, rears a dishwashing machine fed by a conveyor —a conveyor that shuttles dirty dishes from table to kitchen before myopic flies even realize they’ve missed a meal. Atop the dishwasher is an engineer’s brainchild: A device which injects a fractional drop of drying agent into the machine’s rinsing chamber. The dishes, once rinsed, self-dry themselves. A miniature pump, its stroke constantly regulated by the flow of rinse water, injects the quick-dry chemical.

Your wife would appreciate the kitchen’s automated shrimp-cleaner — a machine which cuts and deveins the pesky sea dwellers, turning fried and cocktail-sized shrimp into one of the restaurant’s most profitable (and at the same time, most modestly priced) items.

Gadgetry? Not at all. For purposeful, indeed, is every pushbutton, solenoid and electric eye.

Some—like that magnetic hot-chocolate stirrer—are labor-savers, helping the restaurateur shave his considerable overhead. Others—the warm-spectrumed lights bathing booths and counters—are cunningly contrived to entice your appetite (by accentuating the brawny redness of your T-bone or the greenness of peas). For canny caterers to public appetites know that most of us eat as much with our eyes as with our stomachs.

A few devices—for example, those infrared barbecues set up in full view of diners —are silent salesmen; they tempt you to take-home a whole chicken or roast. Or, like the prismatic-lensed lights which bring out the browns and golds in baked goods, they encourage you to order dessert though you’d told your wife but moments before, “Honey, I’m full up to here.”

Concedes a Denver restaurateur, “In a retail store, the salesman can talk a customer into buying more than he wants. In the food business we let a guy’s stomach and his eyes do the talking for us. Bathe a slice of pie in just the right light and you’ll sell all the pieman can bake. Build a fancy ‘exhibition cooking’ set-up, the chef doing his job in plain sight, and patrons’ eyes suddenly become twice as large as their stomachs. Serve from one of those push-button warming carts—the kind you wheel right to the table—and before he realizes it, the eater-outer has added another buck to his bill, an inch to his waistline and 30-cents to our profits.”

Nowhere, perhaps, does gadgetry more cajole the hungry to gorge—and spend— than at those drive-ins rigged with remote speakers, where you talk directly with the chef, telling him what you want.

“Electronics! It’s wonderful!” beams a Chicago drive-in owner. “Why, we’ve increased order checks—per customer spending—fully 20 percent, rigging the place with speakers. People like to hear themselves talk. Besides, they’re fascinated, ordering remotely like that. And the more they talk, the bigger the tab.”

But most of the gadgets—particularly the more automated ones—are keyed to “portion control,” a phrase new to restaurant-dom’s complex vocabulary. Portion control—in essence—means getting the mostest from the leastest: More slices of ham from the hock, more patties from every pound of burger, more servings of peas from the kettle-full, more sodas from each reservoir of ice cream.

Portion control is cost accounting—accounting for every ounce of syrup in your soda, every slice of bread on your plate, every scoop of ice cream on your pie.

But portion control’s corollary aim is standardization, difficult when it pertains to such a varying commodity as food. The goal: To standardize a restaurant’s bill-of-fare so that today’s order of meatballs tastes exactly like yesterday’s and that of the day before.

Explains the owner of an Atlanta quick-service eatery, “A patron ordering a chef’s salad today expects it to taste exactly as it did last week. That’s the secret of successful operation. Dish up something he likes, and keep dishing it up—precisely the same —day after day.”

It’s considerably more difficult than it sounds. But electronic gadgets have gone far to make that dream reality. Patrons’ clamoring for “sameness”—and the restaurateur’s quest for control over both costs and quality—fomented the “kitchen revolution.”

Restaurants which once left the proportioning to hired help, the chef included, are turning toward automated cooking. And in the process, many an eatery owner —whether he bosses a drive-in or is proprietor of the swankiest steak place in town—has called in the scientist, the food engineer. Given free rein, engineers have become “kitchen-range riders,” their mechanical brainstorms all but commandeering the nation’s hamburger corrals.

“Food service,” explains Richard Kramer, a Los Angeles restaurant consultant, “has become an exact science.”

Consider the milk shake. Until recently it remained one of the few delectables over which the restaurateur had but little control. A fountain man might grab up almost any size scoop (often giving you, the drinker, more ice cream than the fountain’s boss could afford). Nor was there any certainty how much milk would find its way into the drink. Flavor makers, though they’d designed dispensers which delivered just enough syrup with one push of a button, had to admit that a frenzied soda jerk might push twice. Now many fountains have automated shake-making. The machine whips and freezes a pre-flavored mix, by-passes all the hand labor, serves up a ready-to-drink shake every five seconds (and in a rainbow of flavors). With electronics on the job, there’s no guesswork about ingredients. What’s more, that’s how the customer likes his shake: As standardized as this year’s Ford.

Just as foolproof is coffee making. Heart of the electronic mocha maker is a brewing chamber. Chamber loaded (with enough coffee for a dozen cups), water pre-heated to the just-right temperature is monitored electrically into the machine. Three-and-a-half minutes later the coffee is brewed and it begins gurgling into an awaiting Silex. Brew chamber empty, a solenoid is tripped —and cold water rinses the grounds away, cleans the filter cloth, readying things for the next brewing cycle. Some coffee machines go a step further: They grind a fresh batch of beans for each brew.

Those french fries garnishing your hamburger are just one more example of the behind-the-scenes changes which are automating our eating. There was a time when spuds were sliced by hand. Trouble was, the restaurant man never knew how many fries he’d get from the peck.

Today, your french fries—almost as precisely sized as bolts coming off an assembly line—are cut by machine. One sheer turns out 1100 pounds every hour (each the same size, shape and thickness). The pantryman drops a potato into the machine. Hydraulic pressure, electrically actuated, pushes the spud through stainless-steel cutters spinning at better than 200 revolutions per minute. Result: Fries guaranteed to fit snugly into fry-sized glassine bags, custom-tailored to your plate.

You and I profit from the restaurant? gadgetry almost as much as its owner. Infrared lamps, installed above the chef counter, assure that food—though momentarily neglected by the waitress—stays hot Coffee-makers, geared to automation, have taken most of the suspense out of coffee breaks (you’re served a good brew every time). And you’re served faster, too. what with cooking time vastly reduced by ever-hot griddles, electronic rays and infrared waves in the kitchen.

But the cost of push-button food service runs high. An electronic range may cost upwards of $2500-$3000. That conveyorized deep-fat fryer is tagged about $2000. The shrimp cleaner and deveiner? It’s priced at $195—a bracket which would hardly fit your wife’s budget, even if she hankers for it in the kitchen. The magnetic hot-chocolate stirrer costs $19.95. Restaurant owners, installing their quick-order places with a kitchen-full of labor-savers, don’t flinch when the bill for automation creeps above the $50,000 mark.

Little wonder then that the average eater-outer finds himself staring in amazement at consoles of push buttons. But you’re not alone in your bewilderment. Behind doors which open automatically, the chef finds himself the only thing not automated in the restaurant’s kitchen. And like that old-timer, some of the white-hatted clan have all but concluded that it’s not a cook the boss needs—but rather, an electronics engineer.

1 comment
  1. Stannous says: June 6, 20065:17 pm

    Exactly on the mark for so many things yet strangely off in so many others:
    aluminum in the microwave, portion cups of condiments (instead of packets), and completely underestimating the impact of frozen foods like peas, potatoes, and ground beef.

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