Early on in The Automat, a 2022 documentary about the defunct restaurant chain at which each food item sat behind a nickel-operated glass door, one of the format’s many devotees describes the setup as “amazingly optimistic.” Horn & Hardart, the round-the-clock restaurant chain, offered a preview of a future where people from all backgrounds could afford to drink good coffee at gleamingly clean tables

There are echoes of the automat reverberating in Viv’s Fridge, the self-service meal cooler that celebrity chef Vivian Howard introduced in June 2022. Since then, the 45-year-old PBS food show host and restaurateur has installed the modern vending machine in 11 locations over 1,800 square miles in eastern North Carolina, usually in proximity to an independent wine shop.

But unlike automats, Viv’s Fridge didn’t spring from bullish feelings about the years ahead.

Instead, as Howard wrote in a much-forwarded January op-ed for The New York Times titled “Foodie Fever Dreams Can’t Keep Restaurants Afloat,” the fridges’ chef-blessed, take-and-make dishes were created in response to “the archaic and limited nature of our gerbil wheel of a business model.”

Howard believes the refrigerators—along with cutting costs and staffing by converting her flagship Kinston restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, into a cafeteria—could salvage an industry mired in unworkable economics and rock-bottom morale. She’s not alone: As Expedite reported, a recent survey from payment processor Square showed 20 percent of restaurant revenue now comes from products such as T-shirts, cocktail kits, and frozen meals.

“It may sound far-fetched … but our industry needs to do more with less,” Howard wrote.

Since I’m not privy to Howard’s books, I trust her conclusions about what’s required to keep her business solvent and help her team members thrive. But I wondered what those choices look like from a customer’s perspective. Even if Viv’s Fridges aren’t aiming to muster the magic that was an integral part of an Automat visit, do they make good on their promise of deliciousness? And is the experience worth the price?

I visited five Viv’s Fridges last month because I wanted to see if coolers in vacation destinations such as Emerald Isle were kept fully stocked in the off-season. (The Food Section’s official finding: Yes.) 

My first stop was New Bern, North Carolina, where Viv’s Fridge stands near the front door of an upscale marina convenience store. Since the store had closed hours earlier, it was quiet except for Howard’s recorded video greeting, looped on a screen that’s a little smaller than the ones built into gas pumps.

One of the meals from Viv’s Fridge. (Hanna Raskin for The Assembly)

“For any tips or tricks, or to see what I’m doing with my Viv’s Fridge items, go to vivsfridge.com,” she drawled into the darkness, urging visitors to unlock the door with the swipe of a credit card. 

Viv’s Fridges function like hotel minibars, meaning they’re programmed to calculate what customers have extracted and charge accordingly. They also aren’t cheap. Salads cost $22; a chocolate cake is $25. Short ribs packaged with bacon-wrapped potatoes cost more than three times as much.

So, a three-course dinner works out to $33 a person if you’re on board with vivsfridge.com’s estimate of portion sizes. If I was feeding four people, I might spring for the $32 monkey bread starter to round out the meal. Still, $41 is less than the $60 average guest check at Chef & the Farmer, the high-end restaurant at the center of Howard’s breakout TV series, A Chef’s Life.

The catch, of course, is you have to stir, heat, assemble, and garnish your own dishes—and then clean up everything when you’re done. In other words, while the machine is novel, the underlying concept isn’t too different from meal kits such as HelloFresh, except you fetch what you want on your schedule. 

Of the items I rummaged from the refrigerator’s five neatly organized shelves, entrees yielded the most disappointments.

An enveloping red wine gravy that liquified while short ribs braised for 30 minutes could have a solo career as a sauce: Its funky mushroom and sweet garlic notes would probably pair nicely with nearly any neglected cut in the back of your freezer. Between cooking in one place and reheating in another, though, the short rib’s signature fat failed to render fully.

A similar problem came up with a roasted chicken roulade that a bright, Mediterranean-inflected relish couldn’t rescue. When reheated according to directions, it turned tough. On the chicken front, I had slightly better luck with a Parmesan preparation I picked up at a nearby Wegmans, one of several area grocery stores hawking take-and-make meals at lower prices.

It’s convenient, but you still have to heat and mix it. (Hanna Raskin for The Assembly)

Much better were the salads, which perform exceptionally well in artificially cooled conditions. A kale-and-beet salad, with crisp slivers of fiercely orange carrots and nubs of rich blue cheese, was terrific. 

Another refrigerator champion, pie, was so exceptional that I began to fantasize about modern-day pie safes lined up from Murphy to Manteo. The pie comprised alternating slices of lemon and chocolate because—as the sticker on the lid says—“there’s a chocolate person and a lemon person in every relationship,” which feels like an awfully intimate headnote from someone who’s lately been writing about her divorce. But any filling would shine in a blue-ribbon crust that’s all flavor and flake.

Refrigerators are the archenemies of bread, so there aren’t any loaves in Viv’s Fridge. While I fully understand and appreciate the financial and ethical reasons for Howard seeking new ways to parcel out prep tasks, it’s hard to see her collection of dishes as an alternative to a restaurant outing when there isn’t any bread involved.

To be clear, Howard isn’t pretending to replicate Chef & the Farmer on the edge of strip mall parking lots. Viv’s Fridge is an entirely different amenity, aimed at couples who forgot to buy a host gift, or families with a rented cottage but nothing in its pantry for breakfast. But its messaging returns to the theme of cheerful socializing so frequently that the absence of bread was glaring. Bread, after all, is the soul of a shared meal.

Howard didn’t have to create a grab-and-go menu “for your dinner party at home,” as the label on the short ribs touts. She didn’t have to market her scalloped potatoes as “a luxurious event,” or the foundation of one. She could have focused on pie slice machines for lonely sweet tooth owners. Or salad machines for harried lawyers who forgot to pack lunch.

But as Howard put it in her Times op-ed, restaurant people get “crushed, pummeled, and murdered” because they’re forever running themselves—or, more alarmingly, their low-wage workers—ragged in attempts to meet award criteria and exceed guest expectations. At Chef & the Farmer, she wrote, “We didn’t just serve cocktails, coffee, and wine: We had a ‘beverage program,’ and a director to oversee it.”

Viv’s Fridge’s version of a beverage program is the adjacent wine shop, so that’s consistent with the scaling back that’s central to Howard’s new approach. Yet for eaters who care most about how food tastes, the fridges still seem a shade too ambitious.

Even now, in the face of a sector-wide crisis, true hospitality professionals can’t help but try to do it all. 

Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink across the South. You can reach her at hanna@theassemblync.com.