WHERE THE WORLD MEETS TO EAT
- 100% Waiterless Restaurant
- It’s Electrical
- It’s Fascinating
- It’s Sanitary
- It’s Beautiful
- It’s Mechanical
- It’s Novelty
- It’s Progress
- It’s The Show Place of Idaho
These words appeared on the back of a 1941 postcard advertising Boise, Idaho’s only mechanical cafe cleverly dubbed the Mechanafe. For more than a decade, the Mechanafe provided Idaho’s capitol city with 100% waiterless, buffet-style food.
The original Mechanafe was opened by Charles G. Hall in 1929 at 916 North Main Street, right next to the Idanha Hotel. The restaurant would relocate after a few years and eventual settle just down the street in downtown Boise at 211 North 8th Street.
The concept was fairly similar to the Merry-Go-Round Cafes that would open at almost the exact same time. Patrons would sit at their tables and two conveyor belts, one for food and one for dishes would pass directly next to the customer. The concept is slightly similar to automats, except with the conveyor belt system, the customer never had to get up for anything.
Cost of the food was cheap. Originally, it only cost 25 cents per meal, a bargain even for that time. The price was kept low in order to lure customers into the restaurant during the Great Depression. The price would go up a dime throughout the 30s, but the locals still came.
A variety of meats, salads and desserts were available. The restaurant cleverly put the most expensive food near the end of the belt rotation.The thought was customers would grab the food available to them first and not fill on the nicer things. Glass panels on all sides of the conveyor kept food clean and could be easily pushed in when the customer found something they wanted to eat.
In order to maintain cleanliness, the belt was cleaned with bleach every Sunday evening and the glass panel shined and polished.
A typhoid outbreak in the 1930s caused a bit of a panic and kitchen members were ordered to be tested for typhoid and for syphilis in order to not spread the disease very slowly around the restaurant.
Charles Hall sold the restaurant in 1934. The new owners kept the restaurant humming along. Nearly 250,000 customers were served in 1940. The future looked bright. Enter World War II. War time rationing raised the price of food and the restaurant was not permitted to raise the price of meals. The Mechanafe was doomed. Within six months the restaurant would be closed forever and forgotten almost as quickly.
The Mechanafe is somewhat forgotten. Save for a couple of postcards and a matchbook that I have collected over the years, information and ephemera from the waiterless restaurant are scarce. I found a couple of articles that were a big help to me on this post but not much else remains.
The original building that housed the mechanical cafe was razed years ago. The last location has housed a series of restaurants and is still standing with no evidence that the future of food service was once housed inside.
5 thoughts on “Mechanafe – Boise, Idaho”
My father always talked about going there as a child. One of his greatest memories.
I just learned that this was my great grandfather’s restaurant. I would love to have an old matchbook or postcard. Thank you for sharing.
My mother, Mary Sproat Bickford clearly remembers going to the Mechanafe with her parents and she says it was just magical the way the food would pass by and her father would open the doors. He always kept a slip of paper with him to keep track of what they’d chosen. Fast forward ten years and she and her family were living in NYC, eating at the Automat on Broadway, sliding nickels into the slot and opening little windows to pull out plates with freshly prepared food. The Mechanafe remains one of her favourite memories of being a child in Boise.
My grandfather Harry C Prior was the onsite manager of the Mechanafe for the owners from around 1930 to sometime in 1938. My father as a teenager helped with the construction of the second location. The Mechanafe loomed large in our family more as I grew up. One part of the business plan was to keep the size of portions small. Although there was no limit to how many servings or how many dishes diners could have for their 25¢, the thought was that less food would be left on the plates and have to be thrown out.