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Automats: A Unique Dining Experience

Updated on September 24, 2013
A man selects a piece of pie in an automat in 1936
A man selects a piece of pie in an automat in 1936 | Source
Photo editing by TDowling
Photo editing by TDowling | Source

Imagine walking up to a wall of little ornate wooden framed windows, gazing into several windows until you locate just the right food item. Then you plop some nickles onto a slot next to that window, turn a chrome-plated handle, reach in the glass enclosed compartment and pull out a serving of macaroni and cheese or a piece of apple pie.

That’s what the unique dining experience was like at Horn & Hardart Automats.

Horn & Hardart patrons could also find quality, service and cleanliness at America’s first fast food chain.

During the first half of the 20th century, working men and woman in northeast cities enjoyed tasty and inexpensive meals at the Automat. Like today’s fast food establishments, there wasn’t any waitress service at Horn & Hardart. However, rather than queuing up on ONE line for your lunch, you walked up to a massive bank of glass and-chrome food dispensing machines that lined several walls of the eatery, deposited some cash and served yourself. There's weren't any paper or plastic products at your table. Automat diners used silverware and regular plates.

You can trace the Automat’s lineage back to two inventions: the vending machine and the lunch hour.

Until the Industrial Revolution lunch wasn’t thought of as a meal. It was more of a snack. Dinner was the midday meal and it was eaten at home. By the beginning of the 20th century the lunch hour was created in American factories and offices as employers assigned fixed times for the midday meal (between noon and 2 pm). “In New York, the focus of people’s lives is work, and lunch is the meal that was just made to fit into the industrial, urban work day,” explained Laura Shapiro, culinary historian at the New York Public Library.

The vending machine was invented in England in 1880s. The first one appeared on this side of the pond in 1888 on New York City’s subway platforms. The Thomas Adams Gum Company sold Tutti-Fruiti gum in America’s first vending machines.

These two American cultural changes were married by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart when they opened their first Automat in Philadelphia in 1902. Ten years later, they expanded to Times Square in New York City, and it was there that the Automat really took off. To inform New Yorkers of their new venture, the partners bought ads in The New York Times that announced, “Automat Lunch Room Opens To-Day. New Method of Lunching. Try It! You’ll Like It!!”

The Horn & Hardart Automat quickly became an American icon, celebrated in movies and song.

Each Day 750,000 People Enjoyed the Food at Horn & Hardart; Many Came for a 5¢ Cup of New Orleans-Style Coffee

As they expanded, the partners made sure that all their eateries used the same recipes and instituted a centralized system of commissaries that supplied their restaurants. This system was later copied by McDonalds and other fast-food chains. At their peak, Horn & Hardarts had 180 locations in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania feeding over 750,000 people daily, making it the world's largest restaurant chain at the time.

These weren’t your average cafeterias. The New York City Horn & Hardart featured: ornate carved ceilings, lacquered tables, marble floors, cut-glass mirrors and sparkling chrome and glass vending machines. To the average citizen, it all conveyed cleanliness, which had become a new concern after several incidents in the U.S. of food contamination.

The food was constantly restocked by staff members working behind the glass compartments. Sandwiches, hot dishes and desserts were all made fresh following corporate specifications printed in Horn & Hardart manuals.

Photo editing by TDowling
Photo editing by TDowling | Source

And their nickel cup of New Orleans-style coffee was the talk of the town.

Frank Hardart spent his early years in New Orleans and learned the French drip method of making coffee. Diners loved this tastier process more than the common practice of boiling coffee grinds, which resulted in a bitter brew.

Joe Horn was very concerned about the quality of their java. He instructed his staff to toss coffee that sat out more than 20 minutes, after it was brewed.

90 Million Cups of Coffee!

Horn & Hardart’s New Orleans-style French drip coffee that gushed from silver dolphin spigots was a big hit at the eatery. During their pinnacle, they sold more than 90 million cups of fresh-brewed coffee each year.

Composer Irving Berlin was inspired by H&H’s coffee and wrote a song for a Broadway play called, "Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee (and let's have another piece of pie.)”

From 1912 to 1950 Horn & Hardart’s coffee was only a nickel a cup. Hit by inflation in the early ‘50s, H&H was losing a couple of pennies on every 5¢ cup it sold, so begrudgingly they increased the price to a dime and coffee sales plummeted to 45 million cups a year.

H&H Automats Attracted a Wide Variety of Patrons

From 1920 through the 40s, Horn & Hardart Automats were a big hit throughout Philadelphia and Manhattan. Office workers in the new high paced Industrial Age had limited time for lunch and they enjoyed the quality, convenience and quickness of H&H.

The change machine hadn't been invented yet, so you went up to a person called a “nickel thrower,” sitting in a booth, and she took your dollar bills and larger denomination coins and gave you the appropriate amount of nickels.

Tourists and children also loved the Automats. Kids especially enjoyed the experience, given a handful of nickels they could “window shop” for their food. On website, one Horn & Hardart fan recalled how his grandmother regularly took him and his sister “to the Automat in Upper Darby, PA during the Second World War, since our mom was working as a welder. I always took the bake beans in a little pot, fish cakes and mash potatoes. What a shame that the present generation of children don't get the thrill of putting their change in the slots.”

Depression era city dwellers also patronized Horn & Hardart, because they didn’t have to spend very much on a meal. Some even got a cup of hot water and put free ketchup in it for some “soup.” Automats didn’t have cashiers and that meant fellow dinners didn’t know how much, or how little, was spent on each meal.

Horn & Hardart's Still Makes Coffee; It's Ranked 5 Stars

The people who frequented the Automats were an eclectic bunch. Patrons sat anywhere. Since the Automats were often crowded, many times the poor shared a table with bankers. And many movie actors and Broadway entertainers dined at the New York City Horn & Hardart.

“I lived at the Automat,” said Dick Clark. “They had the greatest chocolate milk. I (had) less than two dollars a day to eat on, and the Automat was the only place to go.” Woody Allen also patronized, the Automat. “I grew up going to the Automat. The food was delicious. And it was wonderful,” he said.

Following WWII, Horn & Hardart fell victim to the county’s major cultural shifts. Many Americans moved to the suburbs, where they frequented new fast food joints. And as prices increased, the Automats were limited by vending machines that only accepted nickels and quarters.

In 1991, the last existing Horn & Hardart Automat (on 42nd Street and Third Avenue) closed. If you want to dine at an Automat today, you'll have to travel to the Netherlands.That's the only country where they still operate.

Are You Looking for More?

This scene from “Just This Once” is one of several movies that feature the Automat. ►

A 35-foot section salvaged from the first Horn & Hardart is on display at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Horn & Hardart’s recipe for Macaroni & Cheese, Baked Beans and ten others are available at the HungryBrowser website. – TDowling

© 2013 Thomas Dowling


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