I remember hearing about the New York City Automats from my mother as I was growing up. Ironically, the first automats were not in NYC, but in Philadelphia. But first, for those of you who are not familiar with them, what was an automat?
In 1888 Joe Horn and Frank Hardart were two hard-working and driven men with a strong desire to run a restaurant. They became partners and opened up a 11 x 17 foot lunchroom without space for tables, only a counter long enough to accommodate 15 stools. Soon, their lunchroom became famous for its New Orleans-style French-drip coffee and the quality of the food that was served. Before long, these two very ambitious and service-oriented gentlemen were running several lunchrooms in Philadelphia. As the number of restaurants grew, they found the need to have a central commissary where all the food was prepared and supplied to the various lunchrooms. In 1900, they were approached by a salesman who heard of their ambition and success, and approached them with drawings of a machine, that up until then, had only existed in Europe. Invented by the Swiss and manufactured in Germany, it was modeled after the “waiter-less restaurant” in Berlin.
This new restaurant was called the Automat.
In 1902 the first Horn & Hardart Automat opened on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The early automat machines were not like the sleek, chrome and glass machines used later in New York. The original prototype was made of brass, and was more decorative than functional. The windows displayed a sample of the food that could be ordered, not the actual dish. For hot dishes, a coin was deposited, and one waited until the food was sent up the basement on a dumbwaiter. A second coin was deposited to retrieve the food from behind the window.
Eventually, automats evolved into the Art Deco-style machines that were installed in New York City.
The first New York-based Horn & Hardart Automat was opened in Times Square in 1912. Seated at glass booths inside the Automat were ladies that would convert bills and larger coins to nickels to operate the food machines. It’s been said that they were so adept at their jobs that they could grab a dollar’s worth of nickels without looking or counting them. The nickels were placed in the slots beside the various cold foods that were available. The knob was turned, and the food was rotated into the slot. The door could then be lifted, and the food taken out and placed on a tray. Behind the machine, an Automat employee would place another plate of food in the machine. One could continue from window to window until they put together their meal made up of a sandwiches, rolls, pie etc. Hot foods were selected from a buffet-style table. When the customer had everything he wanted, he sat at a table or counter to eat.
Take a look at this clip from The Catered Affair (1956), during which Debbie Reynolds’ and Rod Taylor’s characters discuss their upcoming nuptials at an Automat:
The food in the Automats was prepared fresh each day. Leftovers were not allowed. Because of this, and the sanitary way the food was dispensed, customers were reassured that the food they were buying was fresh and safe. It was also very affordable, which was important to the working class people who ate at the Automats. This was especially true during the Depression. When times got really tough, people were known to make a type of soup from the hot water and ketchup at the Automat. Homeless people were known to nurse a cup of coffee all day to stay out of the cold.
On the brighter side, the Automats were a bustling place, especially in the location on Broadway in Manhattan, where you could have been seated beside an actor or dancer. As was written in the NY Times:
“Indeed, for generations of New Yorkers, the Automat vending machine was the source of the archetypal workaday lunch. Throw your nickels in the slot, open the window, pull out the roast beef and the sweet potatoes, watch the coffee pour out of the lion-, dolphin- or duck-head spigot, sit down at a table with three other strangers, eat, bus your own tray and leave.”
My mother was one of the thousands of people who worked in midtown Manhattan in the 1950s as a keypunch operator at Lever Brothers on Park Ave. She was the first person I heard about Automats from. Many people have probably never heard of or seen one of them. The last remaining New York Automat, on East 42nd Street, closed in 1991.
Automats made somewhat of a comeback in New York in recent years. There is a sentimental attachment to them for a lot of people, and a few restaurants have acquired the automat machines and are using them either for decorative purposes, or as displays for their food. They will most likely never be back the way they were before, having been replaced by less wholesome fast foods served from drive-through windows. Like a lot of other things, automats were a reflection of the time in which they existed.
In 2006, a company called BAMN! opened a higher-tech automat in New York City. It apparently closed three years later.
Quotes from some famous Automat customers of the past:
“I have always thought that the Automat in New York has the best scrambled eggs in the world.” – Gregory Peck
“Oh, be still my heart! I used to shine shoes when I was fourteen years old. And when I was a little ahead, I would stop at Horn & Hardart.” – Tony Curtis
“I lived at the Automat. They had the greatest chocolate milk. When I moved to Philadelphia, I apportioned less than two dollars a day to eat on, and the Automat was the only place I could do it.” – Dick Clark
“I went to the Automat all the time. I grew up going to the Automat. The food was delicious. And it was wonderful.” – Woody Allen
“The first time I came to New York, I had a meal at the Automat. I had heard about the Automat, and I had to go see what it was all about.” – Leonard Nimoy
Did you ever eat at an automat? We’d love to hear your stories and see pictures!