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Eating at the Automat

Updated on September 1, 2013

American Classic

We think of fast food as a recent invention, but railroad restaurants, hotdog stands and Automats have been around for longer than many people realize.

The first Automat was opened in Philadelphia in 1902. Joe Horn and Frank Hardart imported the food dispensers from Germany, which had pioneered the waiter-less restaurant that the men imported to the United States.

Self Service the Key for Quick Service

Everything cost at least 1 nickel and there were cashiers to change money into nickels. Between the kitchen and the dining room was a wall of windows. The food was placed behind the windows and customers would put nickels into the slots to unlock the door and the customer would take out their selection.

Seating was self-service, the menu offered a wide variety of classic American food such as meat loaf, Salisbury steak, fried chicken and other basic fare. Desserts were also available and the coffee was always fresh.

Doris Day at the Automat

End of the Automat

The restaurant was a big success and soon expanded to New York City and all along the East Coast. The Automat was the first successful fast food chain in the country. The food was produced under assembly line conditions and by just using nickels customers could get their food faster. The Horn & Hardart Automat chain didn’t survive the proliferation of fast food restaurants, but they were very popular for a time. I remember vividly going to an Automat as a child and thinking it was quite the thing. This was in the early 1970's so of course the prices were higher than a nickel by then but the food was pretty good.

Remembering the Automat


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    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 5 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane, Scout...voted up, useful, interesting.

    • LetitiaFT profile image

      LetitiaFT 5 years ago from Paris via California

      I had no idea. And to think we talk about how anonymous fast food chains are today. We may actually have made some progress in the contact department. But in terms of aesthetics, can't beat the automat!

    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes 5 years ago from New England

      So that's what those things are called.. I saw one in NYC but didn't feel daring enough to try it. Then I went to Holland with my boyfriend who is from there and they had one at the train station. I guess they are common there still. I think he was amused by my half-grossed out marveling. I really didn't want to try it there! hehe. To each their own. Loved the hub and hey I learned something!