Remembering an Era: The Automat

auto4by Steven Doyle

Horn & Hardart was once the world’s largest restaurant chain, serving 750,000 people a day. What was once considered high-tech is actually from an era long past, filled with rich romanticism. Audrey Meadows worked at one in the film “That Touch of Mink”, and Joan Crawford leered longingly at a slice of a patron’s pie in “Sadie McKee”. It was the Automat, and was extremely popular in northern states with the first introduced in Philadelphia in 1902 near Independence Hall.

Horn & Hardt Automats became so popular that they spread quickly, landing in Manhattan in 1912. These were homes to the disenfranchised of the industrial age, and were met hungrily by ad-men who hung monikers on the new-style restaurants such as “Try it! You’ll Like It!”, “New Method of Lunching”, and “Less Work for the Mother”. 

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The restaurant concept was simple. The room was filled with tables (which were equalizers having both bank presidents dining next to blue collar workers).  For those in a rush there were stand-up tables which were coined as having a “perpendicular meal”. Customers chose their food from a wall of compartments that for nickels dispensed meals such as Salisbury steak, beef stew, sandwiches, mashed potatoes and gravy and macaroni and cheese. There was actually a wide assortment of choices for the diner, items that appealed to most anyone.

The Automat wasn’t nearly as automated as it might seem, as there were teams of cooks behind the wall filling the slots as the meals were purchased.

Women with rubber tips on their fingers—”nickel throwers,” as they became known—in glass booths gave customers the five-cent tokens or currency required to operate the food machines in exchange for larger coins and paper money. Customers scooped up their nickels, then slipped them into slots in the Automats and turned the chrome-plated knobs with their porcelain centers. In a few seconds, the compartment next to the slot revolved into place to present the desired cold food to the customer through a small glass door that opened and closed. Diners picked up hot foods at buffet-style steam tables.

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Horn & Hardart’s coffee became known as the best in town. At their peak in the 1950s, Automats sold more than 90 million cups of fresh-brewed coffee each year. From 1912 to 1950, a cup cost a nickel.

Horn & Hardart introduced the first fresh-drip brewed coffee to Philadelphia and New York. Before then, coffee on the East Coast had been a harsh liquid clarified with eggshells to make the coffee more palatable. Irving Berlin, the composer of “God Bless America,” wrote a famous song about this delicious brew, “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” which became Horn & Hardart’s theme song.

But Horn & Hardart had a restaurant for every kind of clientele. Philadelphia’s Automats were haunts for actors, hotel guests, and merchants along Jewelers Row. Though Horn & Hardart did not allow smoking, Walter Winchell and other journalists ate at New York’s Automats. The restaurants didn’t hustle folks out who lingered over their meal—or even those who bought no food.

Automats fell victim to consumers’ changing tastes and a migration to the suburbs which made way for fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and White Castle.

In the 1970s Horn & Hardart replaced its dying restaurants with Burger King franchises. The generation that ate at these new fast-food outlets didn’t miss the charm of Automats’ fancy fixtures and diverse menu, and upscale power lunchers had no use for Automats’ simple fare.

The last Automat closed in New York City in 1991.

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Filed under Crave, Restaurant History

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