Boston’s automats

I have written quite a lot about automats, their origins in Germany, and where they have appeared around the country and the world. The automats run by the Horn & Hardart Company in New York, which began in Philadelphia in 1902, were undoubtedly the most successful and best known.

But automats did not do so well in other places. In Boston, The Automat Company of New England is pretty much completely unknown and I could not find a single illustration. (Boston’s automats were not part of Horn & Hardart Co.)

In 1916 the Automat Co. of New England’s first automat opened in a renovated building at 255-257 Washington, occupying the first floor and basement.

It’s difficult to say exactly who was behind this business, but evidently there were numerous investors, including a NYC bond merchant, a New England hotelier, Harvard College, a Philadelphia trust company, and a Boston realty company.

The company began advertising in Boston papers for help, running hundreds of advertisement for chefs, cooks, buss boys, dishwashers, porters, bakers, pie men, and mechanics. Applicants were directed to 40 Winchester Street, which was the central office and commissary where food was to be prepared for the branches that would soon open.

Next, the company hired a general manager and began running advertisements for leases on new locations containing “not less than 4,300 square feet floor space with basement preferred.” Soon it had five: 2 High st., 40 Court st., 234 Huntington ave., 255 Washington, and 32 Franklin, as well as its headquarters on Winchester. As might be expected, the cost of installing automat equipment in the five locations was high.

By early 1919, the company was insolvent and operating only three locations. Receivers were appointed by the court. A story in March revealed that the company owed a serious amount of money to its creditors: $103,789. In August, the commissary and the remaining four locations were auctioned, including all equipment, furniture, stock, and patent rights.

The Waldorf Lunch System, which ran about 24 lunchrooms in the Boston area, acquired the assets of the Automat Company. They continued to run at least one of the locations as an automat, 234 Huntington, until they auctioned the restaurant in June 1924.

Waldorf ran a second automat in the 12-story Little Building on Boylston Street. Since this had not been a location of the Automat Company, Waldorf must have moved automat equipment they acquired in the auction to this address. But, in 1924 they converted this automat into a “modern cafeteria,” saying that they would now be able to handle an additional 50 customers at a time, as well as to expand the menu to include steaks, chops, roasts, and even oysters, cooked by “special chefs” who would provide “regular first-class hotel cooking.” The change was seen as a substantial upgrade.

It sounded as though Bostonians weren’t shedding tears over the disappearance of automats in their city.

It seems to beg the question of why NYC’s automats were celebrated and became objects of nostalgia.

Automat is a word still in use in Germany, meaning a vending machine. And if you think about it, weren’t the old H&H automats simply large vending machines with people working inside of them?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019


Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms

20 responses to “Boston’s automats

  1. Dave

    When I was a kid I often when to an automat in Boston, with my grandfather. I thought it was on Tremont Street. It was across the street (not directly) from the Granary Burial Ground. This was the 60s. There was also one in Medford Square.

  2. Anonymous

    I am interested in how wait staff and chefs lived 1900’s. It looks like most restaurants were either street food, cafe below the owner’s (family) home on the city street, in an inn or hotel. Were the workers paid enough to have a house? Did wait and cook staff live in the hotel?

    • Yes, that was largely true for many restaurant staff in the 1800s, though I can’t give a percentage. Especially, I suspect, for the more important staff. It’s likely too that many of them were relatives of the owner/s. This is a big topic in its own right, one that’s on my To Do list, along with many others. The restaurant ideal was to own an entire building that may have operated as a quasi-hotel and to live above it, or to have staff living on the premises. I’m sure some staff had their own households, but keep in mind that many workers in larger cities lived in residential hotels or boarding houses. Having a house was an expensive proposition that required servants or at least a hard-working wife and children to keep it up.

  3. Thomas Hussey

    I remember going to an Automat when we would go to Fenway Park. Thought it was on Boylston on a corner near Boston Common. This would have been late 50’s

  4. Farid Alan Schintzius

    I remember going with my granny to an automat cafeteria in Buffalo NY, but now I cannot find any info on it

  5. Sabrina Rood

    Doing genealogy research, I found that my great-grandfather was a Foreman Baker at the Automat company at 44 Winchester St. in Boston in 1915, according to his World War I registration card. I knew that previously he was a hotel baker. I wish I had more family stories about this great-grandfather’s life in Boston. Later in his life he moved to Vermont, and that’s where the family stories are mostly based. He continued in the restaurant business and had his own restaurant and campground on the shores of Lake Champlain in Malletts Bay, Vermont.

    • That is very interesting. My Dad grew up on Winchester St in Boston and his dad was a chef at the Waldorf. My Dad was an accountant there and met my mom in the office. We grew up in Winchester MA and I live in Vermont now. Lot’s of coincidences!

  6. Your entry about the automat restaurants is great! As a kid, that was my favorite restaurant. So unique, so wonderful. And they had the best beef stew in the whole world!

  7. I wonder if thrifty New Englanders didn’t like the concept.

  8. I find it hard to grasp how they could work in a way that delivered food that was of even median quality. How long would prepared dishes remain hot and be bacteria free? Who were the envisioned clientele?

  9. Sandrs hunter

    Always learning from you. New word in my vocabulary – Automat!!
    Loving it!!

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