“a large, rectangular hall, filled with shiny, lacquered tables surrounding a glass booth, where the nimblest fingers on earth dispensed change for a quarter or a dollar in nickels . . . endless nickels, shiny nickels, magical nickels that were slipped into slots on the wall, and before your very eyes, an Open Sesame roll came around the bend of a glass cubicle.” – the playwright Neil Simon
The Automat was one of the wonders of New York. When Joe Horn and Frank Hardart opened their magnificent flagship on July 2, 1912—a two-story facade of stained glass, marble floors, and ornate carved ceilings, right in the middle of Times Square—the city was instantly captivated. Hungry? Drop a nickel in a slot, open the door to your chosen compartment, and pull your dish right out—a modern miracle! By the 1940s there were Automat restaurants all over the city. Children and tourists adored them, office workers depended on them, retirees gathered in them, and New Yorkers with nothing to spend on lunch stirred free ketchup into hot water and called it soup.
These restaurants, with their chrome-and-glass coin-operated machines, brought high-tech, inexpensive eating to a low-tech era. Originally, the machines in U.S. automats took only nickels. In the original format, a cashier sat in a change booth in the center of the restaurant,—“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. The diner would insert the required number of coins in a machine and then lift a window, hinged at the top, and remove the meal, usually wrapped in waxed paper.
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.
The machines were replenished from the kitchen behind. All or most New York automats had a cafeteria-style steam table where patrons could slide a tray along rails and choose foods, which were ladled from tureens.
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
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.
At its peak, Horn & Hardart, through its Automats, the waiter-less cafeterias that often accompanied them and its retail shops, was feeding as many as 750,000 people a day.
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But the all-day crowds that swarmed the Automat began to disappear in the 1950s as city dwellers moved to the suburbs and many office buildings opened their own cafeterias. At the same time, food and labor costs soared. H&H was forced to raise prices, quality declined, and the once-resplendent restaurants grew seedy. The last of them shut down in 1991, but nobody who dropped a nickel in the slot ever forgot the Automat, and the name still resonates as a beloved fixture of New York culture.
THE AUTOMAT, The Horn & Hardart Documentary Film
Lisa Hurwitz is raising funds for THE AUTOMAT, The Horn & Hardart Documentary Film on Kickstarter! THE AUTOMAT, a documentary film about the phenomena of America’s original & most beloved restaurant chain in NYC & Philadelphia.