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Meet Me at the Automat

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

Automats enforced quality control. The leather-bound rule book every manager received listed the proper handling of the nearly 400 menu items, described precisely where to position the buffet-style food on the plates and stated the number of times employees were to wipe tabletops each day.

Daily, founders Horn and Hardart and other executives lunched together at the Sample Table (or the "ulcer table," as some disgruntled workers dubbed it). To test for quality and uniformity, they ate regular items and offered suggestions for new ones. And they judged whether new ingredients that outside suppliers offered were superior to those that were already in use.

Between courses, samplers sipped black coffee. Each day that beverage came from a different Horn & Hardart outlet. In this way, Horn & Hardart performed spot checks on coffee, the most commonly ordered item. The precise amount gushed from the mouth of a chrome dolphin’s head (copied from a Pompeian fountain) at an exactly calibrated temperature.

Horn & Hardart’s coffee became known as the best in town. In their heyday 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, brackish drink made by boiling it interminably with eggshells to clarify it.

After brewing each batch of their coffee, Horn & Hardart employees filled out a time card. After 20 minutes, they discarded whatever coffee remained and prepared more. 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.

For diners who were really in such a rush, the company provided stand-up counters similar to those that banks provide for writing deposit slips. These people ate what became known as "perpendicular meals."

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. Perhaps people tired of cafeteria-style food. Many no longer ate a full meal at lunch. Americans moved into the suburbs and didn’t come downtown as often, so night business at Automats fell too. With lower labor and food costs, the modern kind of fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald’s, White Castle and theme-food emporiums, competed too successfully.

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. Upscale power lunchers had no use for Automats’ simple fare.

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