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Updated Automat to open in New York City

Passersby look at the wall of coin-operated window boxes containing food at Bamn! as a sign on the door, right, illustrates how the automat works Thursday Aug. 24, 2006. The shop, which was not yet open for business, is scheduled to open Tuesday Aug. 29, 2006. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)

NEW YORK --Before there was McDonald's, there was the Automat.

Now a fading memory, the Horn & Hardart Automat in its heyday served up lamb stew and pie to millions of New Yorkers who dropped a coin into a slot and opened a small glass door to fetch their food.

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revive the tradition -- with a few modern twists -- when they open Bamn! Automat in the East Village this week.

"What's old is new again," said Robert Kwak, 30, co-founder of the new Automat. "We want to give the younger generation the experience."

According to Kwak and partners David Leong and Nobu Nguyen, the name is meant to suggest speed -- bam! put your money in; bam! grab your snack -- and the idea that the food is damn good.

Less than a restaurant but more than a wall of vending machines, Bamn! is holding a kickoff party Monday and opening to the public Tuesday with a menu featuring teriyaki chicken sliders, pizza dumplings and mac-and-cheese pockets.

Wedged between Japanese restaurants and tattoo parlors, the 600-square-foot Bamn! comprises a well-equipped kitchen and a tiny storefront decked out in cotton-candy pink neon.

The technology is similar to the Horn & Hardart Automats, with columns of coin-operated window boxes.

While the Automats had communal tables and cafeteria-style food, Bamn! will offer no seating and will sell small bites of portable items, many of them fried, like chicken nuggets and mozzarella sticks. French fries and soft-serve ice cream will be served by a human and not the machine. Most items on the menu cost less than $3.

"There was a reason why the Horn and Hardart Automat eventually failed," said Leong, 30. "They were serving big meals. They weren't adjusting to customers' preferences. ... We wanted to take the best aspects, the great things about it, keep it here and then also make it a viable business."

Alec Shuldiner, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Cornell University on Automat technology, said the Horn & Hardart Automats served food consisting of "stewed or baked meat that could be overcooked without doing it any harm."

The new version features "quick-cooked food, mostly deep-fried, that has a very short holding period," he noted.

Fried foods will be kept warm in their coin boxes but must be thrown out if they don't sell within 25 minutes.

Shuldiner works as a consultant in Amsterdam, where the Automat model the Bamn! team strives to emulate -- the Dutch word is "automatiek" -- is popular.

"They're very common in the Netherlands but more or less nonexistent anywhere else in the world," he said.

One area where the Bamn! partners hope to stand out is in the quality of the food. Their consulting chef is Kevin Reilly, the executive chef at the Water Club on the East River, who created the menu.

Reilly met the Bamn! team when he spotted its ad on Craigslist looking for a croquette recipe.

"We sat down and hashed out their ideas," he said. "The thing that put me on to working with them was that they were willing to use restaurant-quality ingredients and restaurant preparations."

The sauces that Bamn! will serve with fries will be made from ingredients like fresh ginger, truffle oil and Maytag blue cheese, Reilly said. "These things cost a lot more than if you would buy Kraft."

The store will be open 24 hours and will aim to attract New York University students, bar-goers, tourists and local residents.

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