By Colleen Kim, Historian
As the country begins to reopen and establish a “new normal,” the question of what the restaurant experience will look like in the coming months looms large. Today, we’re exploring the history of a long-forgotten, low-contact dining option: the Automat.
Once the largest restaurant chain in the United States, Automats were a sort of intermediate between a cafeteria and a vending machine. The walls of the Automat were lined with individual, glass-fronted compartments containing a plate of food. A 1902 newspaper described it this way: “Anything from a sandwich to an oyster stew may be obtained by dropping the necessary coin in a slot…the food will be displayed in long glass compartments. You see what you want, and by dropping a coin into the aperture beside the desired dish and pulling a lever the mechanism starts to work and lets down a sandwich, a piece of pie, or whatever the order may call for.” The Automat also offered coin-operated spouts for drinks like coffee and chocolate milk, and open, cafeteria-style seating.
At its height, the Automat was featured in popular movies and songs and became a must-see New York City icon for tourists. Today, none of these restaurants exist in the United States. Although Automats originated as a high-tech, impersonal form of food service, they became best known for the thoroughly human experience of eating in these restaurants alongside people from all walks of life.
The Origins of the Automat
Late in the 19th century, a Philadelphia man named Joe Horn took out a newspaper ad indicating he was seeking a business partner. Frank Hardart, a Philadelphian with Bavarian roots, responded and the two opened a luncheonette in 1888. Quick lunch spots like this catered to the growing class of urban workers with short lunch breaks. Horn and Hardart opened a chain of restaurants that became known in Philadelphia for their fresh drip coffee—a welcome departure from the harsh, boiled coffee standard at the time. By the turn of the 20th century, Horn and Hardart were ready to take the quick lunch concept further.
Automatic restaurants first sprung up in several cities across Europe in the final years of the 19th century following the concept’s 1895 debut in Berlin at a restaurant named Quisisana. A sales representative for Quisisana’s machinery approached Horn and Hardart about using their Automat machines, and Hardart visited Quisisana during a 1901 vacation to Germany. After seeing the technology in action, the American entrepreneurs arranged to have these German Automat machines shipped to America for a new Horn and Hardart restaurant.
Getting the machines to the United States involved some trial and error. The first shipment sank to the bottom of the sea off the coast of England in a shipping mishap. The second set made it safely to the U.S. but was damaged in an explosion at the building where they were stored. Finally, after some tinkering to repair the machines, Horn and Hardart opened the first American Automat at 818 Chestnut Street on June 9, 1902. The novel restaurant instantly garnered attention. Eager customers flooded the restaurant on opening day.
The Automat Becomes American
Despite its European roots, the Automat soon became an integral part of the American dining landscape. As early as 1902, a newspaper article introduced it as follows: “The Automat is the invention of Herr Sielaff, a captain in the Kaiser’s own regiment, who evolved this most ingenious and practical arrangement, something that out-Yankess [sic] the most Yankee notion ever conceived and executed in the United States.”
New York City’s first Automat, operated by the Harcombe Restaurant Co., opened soon after the Philadelphia location at 830 Broadway. Here, diners could enjoy upscale fare—like lobster a la Newburgh and cocktails in high balls—as well as everyday favorites like ice cream and chicken soup. It enjoyed only brief success, going out of business in 1907. It wasn’t until Horn and Hardart opened a location in Times Square in 1912 that the Automat began to take off in the Big Apple.
As Horn and Hardart Automats (H&Hs, as they were sometimes called) added new locations, their appeal was not limited to workers on lunch breaks. H&H Automats were one of a few restaurant chains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries where unescorted women were allowed to dine. Automats were suitable for children, affordable, but never seedy.
Other attractions included the hygiene and technological innovation of the Automat. The waiterless restaurants allowed patrons to glimpse their macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and cheesecake before purchase and gave the impression that the food was untouched and unsullied by human hands. In a time when many American kitchens lacked modern refrigerators and electric appliances, the Automat offered cool, mechanical efficiency in the spirit of the Ford assembly line.
These clean, inexpensive restaurants became so deeply entrenched in the New York City lifestyle that they came to represent not only American efficiency but the character of New York City itself. In 1924, a newspaper columnist described the Automat this way: “The automat is almost as much of an institution along Broadway as Times sq. No revue or variety show is complete without its quip about this famous nickel-in-the-slot eating place… It swirls with the froth of Broadway life—the peripatetic ads of the one-flight tailors, the rah, rah boys, the chorus girls, scrapping newsboys, leading men, visiting school teachers, gamblers, ladies of the evening and hard-boiled gents… It is one of the melting pots of Broadway where all castes rub elbows and carry their food to marble-topped tables.”
No Glorified Slot Machine
Despite its mechanical novelty, the Automat was “far from being a glorified slot machine,” as a 1950 newspaper put it. The chrome and glass walls of the Automat witnessed the range of urban social experiences. On the one hand, the Automat could be a place of loneliness and lingering. The lack of waiters meant that the lonely, the homeless, or the unemployed could come in from the heat or cold without being rushed out the door. In one of his famous portraits of the urban American experience, Edward Hopper depicted the automat as a lonely space in his 1927 painting Automat.
At the same time, the Automat was a place of mixing and mingling, patronized by people from all social classes. In 1905, Mrs. Joseph Widener threw an “automat party” where the standard fare was replaced with pate de foie gras, terrapin, and champagne. In 1960, Jack Benny threw a black-tie party at an Automat. Movie stars like Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck all dined there. But the Automat also did well during the Great Depression, when it offered affordable pot pies, sandwiches, donuts, and a nickel could buy patrons a warm cup of coffee. Some reportedly even consumed “Depression Cocktails” at the Automat, which consisted of free ketchup mixed into a glass of water.
For many, an H&H was a place of autonomy, where one could hurry, or linger, without being held up or bothered. Children could pick out their own foods and work the machines themselves. The Automat was a place where you could eat pie for breakfast if you wanted to, and in 1964, Horn and Hardart sold an average of 822 pieces of pie across their New York locations each day between the hours of 8 and 11 am.
As a result, Horn and Hardart’s became the largest restaurant chain in the United States, serving hundreds of thousands of people a day at its peak.
The Automat in Decline
Despite its status as an institution in New York and Philadelphia, in the 1950s, the Automat began its slow decline. City centers atrophied as many moved to the suburbs, and inflation finally pushed the price of H&H coffee to 2 nickels in 1950, after decades of reliable, 5-cent coffee. As fast-food restaurants gained popularity, Automats had trouble keeping up.
Despite the mechanical façade of these waiterless restaurants, in reality, the Automat relied on an army of workers to cook and stock food. All the Horn and Hardart Automats were supplied by central commissaries where exacting standards for quality and consistency directed the production of hundreds of different dishes. At Automat locations, workers behind the scenes refilled empty glass compartments with baked beans, cakes, and ham sandwiches, and constantly monitored the food and drinks to ensure they were fresh. When the volume of customers at H&H Automats declined, these busy behind-the-scenes workers became too expensive for the restaurants to support. Automats cut quality to cut costs, and rather than preparing dishes fresh, H&H Automats began to rely on frozen food. Patrons noticed the decline in quality.
On December 28, 1968, the original Horn and Hardart Automat on Chestnut Street closed after 66 years. By that time, the automat machines at that location had not been in operation for a year but were left as décor in the Horn and Hardart cafeteria. Many Automat locations were replaced with fast-food restaurants like Burger King. By 1977, the last New York City Automat had become a tourist attraction and novel piece of nostalgia. When quietly shuttered in 1991, the Automat vanished from the American dining scene.
Since the last H&H Automat closed, several other attempts at an automat-type restaurant have failed to catch on. None have successfully replicated the human experience that made the Automat an institution.