Meet Me at the Automat

Horn & Hardart gave big city Americans a taste of good fast food in its chrome-and-glass restaurants

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It was once the world’s largest restaurant chain, serving 800,000 people a day. It was Horn & Hardart, and its cavernous, waiterless establishments represented a combination of fast-food, vending and cafeteria-style eateries. These restaurants, with their chrome-and-glass coin-operated machines, brought high-tech, inexpensive eating to a low-tech era. Making their debut in Philadelphia in 1902, just up the street from Independence Hall, and reaching Manhattan in 1912, Horn & Hardart Automats became an American icon, celebrated in song and humor. With their uniform recipes and centralized commissary system of supplying their restaurants, the Automats were America’s first major fast-food chain.

Although no longer a commercial enterprise, the Automat nonetheless has survived as a relic of Americana. Beautifully ornate with its mirrors, marble and marquetry, a 35-foot piece of Philadelphia’s 1902 Horn & Hardart is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Founded by Joseph Horn and German-born Frank Hardart, the restaurants were a new concept in food service, borrowed from a successful German eatery. The Automats immediately captured America’s interest and imagination. They were the restaurant industry’s first attempt at emulating the assembly line.

Customers put together their own meals in a continuous, moving operation. Hot food was always hot—and savory. Automats, moreover, always sought to offer the widest possible variety of culinary choices.

In huge rectangular halls filled with shiny, lacquered tables, women with rubber tips on their fingers—"nickel throwers," as they became known—in glass booths gave customers the five-cent pieces 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.

The word "automat" comes from the Greek automatos, meaning "self-acting." But Automats weren’t truly automatic. They were heavily staffed. As a customer removed a compartment’s contents, a behind-the-machine human quickly slipped another sandwich, salad, piece of pie or coffee cake into the vacated chamber.

Customers found many advantages in this style of dining. They could see the food before buying it. They thought the glass-fronted compartments and shiny fittings were sanitary, a comforting reassurance after the food contamination scares of the time.

Patrons were discouraged from tipping. Nor did any cash register reveal the cost of a meal for all to see; the coin slots kept thrifty customers’ dining expenditures discreetly hidden.

Diners could sit wherever they chose. Automats could be great equalizers because paupers and investment bankers might sit together at the same table. And Automats were something special to children. With a handful of change, they could choose a meal from foods they liked.

Horn & Hardart Automats had a strict fresh-food policy. No food could be left overnight in any of its restaurants—or its retail shops (whose motto was "Less Work for Mother"), which sold prepackaged Automat food. After closing time each day, Horn & Hardart trucks carried surplus food to "day-old" shops. New York and Philadelphia each had three, located in low-income neighborhoods, which sold these items at reduced prices.

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