The Automat, an East Coast oasis

automatlogoIn the late 19th century owners of large popular-price restaurants began to look for ways to cut costs and eliminate waiters. The times were hospitable to mechanical solutions and in 1902 automatic restaurants opened in Philadelphia (pictured below) and New York. In both cities, a clever coin-operated set-up – and a name – were imported from Germany. There was, however, a striking difference between the two operations. The Philadelphia Automat, run by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, served no alcoholic beverages, while the New York Automat, true to its European origins, did.

automatphil3051The Automat in NYC was owned by James Harcombe, who in the 1890s had acquired Sutherland’s, one of the city’s old landmark restaurants located on Liberty Street. The Harcombe Restaurant Company’s Automat was at 830 Broadway, near Union Square. Reportedly costing more than $75,000 to install, it was a marvel of invention decorated with inlaid mirror, richly colored woods, and German proverbs. It served forth sandwiches and soups, dishes such as fish chowder and lobster Newburg, and ice creams. Beer, cocktails, and cordials flowed from its faucets. A bit too freely. The Automat’s staff had to keep a sharp lookout for young boys dropping coins into the liquor slots.

While the Philadelphia Automat thrived, the New York counterpart ran into financial difficulties shortly after opening, possibly because of a poor location. It advertised in an NYU student magazine in 1904: “Europe’s Unique Electric Self-serving Device for Lunches and Beverages. No Waiting. No Tipping. Open Evenings Until Midnight.” The disappearance of the Harcombe Automat ca. 1910 seemed to fulfill pessimistic views that an automatic restaurant couldn’t succeed in New York, allegedly because machinery would malfunction and customers would cheat by feeding it slugs.

1912bdwyautomatUndeterred by the first Automat’s fate, Horn & Hardart moved into New York in 1912, opening an Automat of their own manufacture at Broadway and 46th Street (pictured). It turned out that New Yorkers did indeed use slugs, especially in 1935 when 219,000 were inserted into H&H slots. But despite this, the automatic restaurant prospered, expanded, and became a New York institution. By 1918 there were nearly 50 Automats in the two major cities, and eventually a few in Boston. Horn & Hardart tried Automats in Chicago in the 1920s but they were a failure. On an inspection tour in Chicago, Joseph Horn noted problems such as weak coffee, “figs not right,” and “lem. meringue very bad.”

Part of the lore of the Automat derives from the unexpected forms of sociability it inspired among strangers. Others found in it a unique entertaining concept. Jack Benny hosted a black tie dinner in a New York Automat for 500 friends in 1960, but he was scarcely the first to come up with the idea. As early as 1903 a Philadelphia hostess rented that city’s Automat for a soirée, hiring a caterer to replace meatloaf and coffee with terrapin and champagne. In 1917 a New York bohemian group calling themselves “The Tramps” took over the Broadway Automat for a dance party, inserting in the food compartments numbered slips corresponding to dance partners. For most customers, though, the Automat meant cheap food and possibly a leisurely place to kill time and watch the parade of humanity.

automatmysteries3041The Automats hit their peak in the mid-20th century. Slugs aside, the Depression years were better for business than the wealthier 1960s and 1970s when some units were converted to Burger Kings. In 1933 H&H hired Francis Bourdon, the French chef at the Sherry Netherland (fellow chefs called him “L’Escoffier des Automats”). In 1969 Philadelphia’s first Automat closed, being declared “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.” That left two in Philadelphia and eight in NYC. The last New York Automat, at East 42nd and 3rd Ave, closed in 1991.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

16 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

16 responses to “The Automat, an East Coast oasis

  1. Cat

    Were there any automats in western cities or the mid-west?

    • There were at least 7 Horn & Hardart Automats in Chicago, but they closed by 1930. Cafeterias, which are very similar to automats except that the workers are visible and don’t put the food on the plate until the customer appears, were more popular there. It’s possible that there may have been a few others outside of the Northeast but I haven’t discovered them yet.

  2. Jeremy

    Was there another name that the automats went by, a nickname?

  3. barbara g

    I used to eat at Dubrow’s on Kings Highway. I’m pretty sure that there was another Dubrow’s on Flatbush and I ate there on break one summer when I took geometry at Erasmus in summer school. I didn’t even live in Brooklyn, but that’s where summer school was. Actually, all I ever ate there was the delicious chocolate pudding and the cookies. My mother always said that chocolate pudding made anywhere other than home was made with water and not milk. It always tasted better out.

  4. karen bercovici

    Jan: Your piece is so interesting and so evocative. My grandfather first took me to Horn and Hardart’s, and I was hooked. Putting nickels into the heavy glass and metal doors, swinging them open and grabbing my piece of apple pie felt magical. My overeating may have derived from my pleasure in dropping coins into as many doors as possible. It was a possession thing, a thrill not unlike slot machines. My father and uncle, both in entertainment, took me early to Sardi’s and the Russian Tea Room, but I was not impressed: it was the participatory automat that I wanted.

  5. I had plans to blog about the Automat, but your post is great!

  6. Ken Thompson

    Thank you!! My wife is a descendant of James Harcombe, and i’m working on the family tree. Any info like this is greatly appreciated!

  7. I’ve always wanted to do a post on Automats Jan. You’ve done them justice in this post. I’m going to save this link for a future post on Horn & Hardart. That cartoon is a treasure:)

    I wonder where the Brass Rail fits into the history of automats?

    Thanks for another GREAT post!!!

  8. Pingback: Topics about Dance » The Automat, an east coast oasis « Restaurant-ing through history

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