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2000s Archive

Automat for the People

Originally Published October 2002
The saga of Horn & Hardart—a story that says as much about America as it does about the legendary chain—is told in a new book by Lorraine B. Diehl and Marianne Hardart.

Mention Horn & Hardart’s famous Automat to anyone who visited one, and you’d better prepare yourself for a flood of memories. First, there was the food: coconut cream and pumpkin pies, vanilla ice cream flecked with real vanilla beans, rice pudding laced with plump raisins. And where else could you get a slice of berry-bursting huckleberry pie? These rewards followed velvety macaroni and cheese, bubbly chicken potpie, or succulent Salisbury steak with the fluffiest mashed potatoes. The creamed spinach was another favorite, along with those unforgettable baked beans. It was top-quality comfort food, and every child of the Automat had a favorite. Whatever they chose, they were almost certain to wash it down with a cup of unbeatable “gilt-edged” coffee poured from those famous dolphin-head spouts.

Cofounder Joe Horn understood the importance of food that lingered in the memory while not emptying the wallets of the working people to whom the Automat catered. “There is no trick to selling a poor item cheaply,” said Horn, who opened his first Automat in 1902. “The real trick is to sell a good item cheaply.” To accomplish this, every day at five in the morning a fleet of Edison trucks was dispatched to the city’s docks and markets to pick up the ingredients that went into 2,500 rolls and loaves of bread, 3,000 pies and 44,000 individual cakes, 300 gallons of soup, 200 gallons of baked beans, and 1,200 pounds of ham. At the company’s commissaries, a small army employed efficient cooking tactics. The famous huckleberry, pumpkin, and custard pies, for example, required a quartet of cooks working in perfect synchronization at a revolving table. The first placed a pie plate on a frame and covered it with a sheet of dough, the second added the filling, a third placed a top crust over it, and a fourth trimmed the edges and marked the dough to indicate the type of filling. Six pies a minute were processed and slipped into ovens that resembled Ferris wheels.

But to linger over Horn & Hardart’s food is to see just half the picture. Every kid who longed for autonomy had his dreams come true at the Automat. A fistful of nickels, thrust across a marble slab by one of the quicker-than-the-eye cashiers known as nickel throwers, would open the little windows to casseroles, pies, sandwiches, whatever took one’s fancy. That famous wall of windows, a mechanical marvel in a country where the pinball machine was yet to make its appearance, made the Automat unique.

Playwright Neil Simon remembered the Depression days when his unemployed mother scraped together enough money to treat him to Sunday-night dinners at the Automat. “To have your own stack of nickels placed in your own tiny hands; to be able to choose your own food, richly on display like museum pieces; to make quick and final decisions at the age of eight, was a lesson in financial dealings that not even two years at the Wharton School could buy today.”

In the late 1950s, there were 85 Horn & Hardart Automats and cafeterias in New York and Philadelphia. They wove themselves into the fabric not just of the neighborhoods, but of the entire nation. Irving Berlin celebrated them in song; Hollywood made them a plot device. Comedian Jack Benny, whose shtick was his cheapness, inaugurated his television series with a party at an Automat, presenting each guest with a roll of nickels. On Broadway, that wall of windows was reproduced for Face the Music, a 1932 show about the Depression, when a five-cent cup of coffee and a ten-cent piece of pie became particularly appealing.

The story of the Automat is as much about a time as it is about a place. We were a different country: formal in our manners and dress, but more relaxed about eating meals across from a stranger. We expected more bang for the buck, and we got it. For nearly a half century, it took only a nickel for those dolphin heads to release a generous cupful of Frank Hardart’s coffee, lightened not with milk but with real cream. But on November 28, 1950, the House That Nickels Built delivered Philadelphians a heavy blow: When customers walked into their favorite Horn & Hardart and scooped up their handful of nickels, they found it would take two of them to buy the same cup of coffee. The next day, New Yorkers got the same bad news.

For Horn & Hardart, the change was devastating. Even though the price of a telephone call and a ride on a bus or subway had made the nickel-to-dime jump in both cities, there was something psychologically undermining about the coffee move. A year after the increase, Horn & Hardart executives in New York looked at the balance sheet and saw that, instead of selling their usual 70 million cups of coffee, they had sold only 45 million cups. Everyone knew it wasn’t really about the five cents: The vanished nickel cup of coffee was the straw that broke the tiring camel’s back, a symptom of greater problems facing the restaurant chain.

America’s migration to the suburbs, labor troubles, competition from fast-food franchises, and (somewhat ironically) increasing prosperity combined to spell the end. On May 12, 1990, Philadelphia lost its last original Automat; on April 18, 1991, New York City’s Automat on 42nd Street and Third Avenue served its last meal. It was over. Horn & Hardart had become a memory. But what a memory it is.