In 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.
The 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.
Undeterred 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.
The 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