The Rise and Fall of the Automat

The Rise and Fall of the Automat

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It all sounds so futuristic: a restaurant without waiters, without workers behind the counter, without any visible employees whatsoever, where you simply feed your money into a glass-enclosed kiosk, remove a steaming plate of freshly made food, and carry it to your table. Welcome to Horn & Hardart, circa 1950, a restaurant chain that once boasted 40 locations in New York City and dozens more across the U.S., at a now-distant time when automats served hundreds of thousands of urban customers every day.

The Origin of the Automat

The automat is often considered to be an exclusively American phenomenon, but in fact, the world's first restaurant of this kind opened in Berlin, Germany in 1895. Named Quisisana-after a company that also manufactured food-vending machinery-this high-tech eatery established itself in other northern European cities, and Quisisana soon licensed its technology to Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who opened the first American automat in Philadelphia in 1902.

An Appealing Formula

As with so many other societal trends, it was in turn-of-the-century New York that automats really took off. The first New York Horn & Hardart opened in 1912, and soon the chain had hit on an appealing formula: customers exchanged dollar bills for handfuls of nickels (from attractive women behind glass booths, wearing rubber tips on their fingers), then fed their change into vending machines, turned the knobs, and extracted plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and cherry pie, among hundreds of other menu items. Dining was communal and cafeteria-style, to the extent that Horn & Hardart automats were considered a valuable corrective to the snobbery of so many New York City restaurants.

Fresh-Brewed Coffee for a Nickel a Cup

It's not widely known today, but Horn & Hardart was also the first New York restaurant chain to offer its customers fresh-brewed coffee, for a nickel a cup. Employees were instructed to discard any pots that had been sitting for more than twenty minutes, a level of quality control that inspired Irving Berlin to compose the song "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" (which quickly became Horn & Hardart's official jingle). There wasn't much (if any) choice, but in terms of reliability, Horn & Hardart could be considered the 1950's equivalent of Starbucks.

Behind the Scenes

Given all the high-tech accouterments and lack of visible personnel, Horn & Hardart customers could be forgiven for thinking that their food had been prepared and handled by robots. Of course, that wasn't the case, and an argument can be made that automats succeeded at the expense of their hard-working employees. The managers of these restaurants still had to hire human beings to cook, convey food to the vending machines, and wash the silverware and dishes--but since all this activity went on behind the scenes, they got away with paying below-par wages and forcing employees to work overtime. In August of 1937, the AFL-CIO picketed Horn & Hardarts across the city, protesting the chain's unfair labor practices.

In its heyday, Horn & Hardart succeeded partly because its eponymous founders refused to rest on their laurels. Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart ordered any food uneaten at the end of the day to be delivered to cut-price, "day-old" outlets, and also circulated a hefty, leather-bound rule book that instructed employees on the proper cooking and handling of hundreds of menu items. Horn and Hardart (the founders, not the restaurant) also constantly tinkered with their formula, assembling as often as possible at a "sample table" where they and their chief executives voted thumbs up or thumbs down on new menu items.

Fading in Popularity by the 1970s

By the 1970s, automats like Horn & Hardart were fading in popularity, and the culprits were easy to identify. First, fast-food chains like McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken offered much more limited menus, but a more identifiable "taste," and they also enjoyed the benefits of lower labor and food costs. Second, urban workers were less inclined to punctuate their days with leisurely lunches, complete with appetizer, main course, and dessert, and preferred to grab lighter meals on the fly; one imagines that the fiscal crisis in 1970's New York also encouraged more people to bring their meals to the office from home.

Finally Went out of Business in 1991

By the end of the decade, Horn & Hardart gave in to the inevitable and converted most of its New York City locations into Burger King franchises; the last Horn & Hardart, on Third Avenue and 42nd Street, finally went out of business in 1991. Today, the only place you can see what Horn & Hardart looked like is in the Smithsonian Institution, which harbors a 35-foot-long chunk of the original 1902 restaurant, and this chain's surviving vending machines are said to languish in a warehouse in upstate New York.

Rebirth of the Concept

No good idea ever truly disappears, though. Eatsa, which opened in San Francisco in 2015, seems unlike Horn & Hardart in every way conceivable: every item on the menu is made with quinoa, and ordering is done via an iPad, after a brief interaction with a virtual maître d'. But the basic concept is the same: with no human interaction at all, a customer can watch as her meal almost magically materializes in a small cubby flashing her name. In the food industry, it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same!