Meet Me at the Automat

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

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.

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.

The last Automat closed in New York City in 1991, lamented by those who remembered what the chain had stood for: quality, service and cleanliness.

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