The Automat goes country

What happened when Horn & Hardart went outside the densely populated city and into the countryside?

“The Automat in the Forest” was located in Sterling Forest Gardens, a 125-acre private park filled with attractions such as huge floral displays, children’s playgrounds, fountains, and a meditation garden. The enterprise, created by a NYC investment company, was a one-hour drive outside New York City.

The Gardens presented a highly-engineered version of nature achieved with imports such as 1.5M tulip bulbs and 300 robins for the grand opening in spring of 1960. (The robins arrived by plane.) There were swans, peacocks, cranes, and flamingos, while native wildlife was strongly “discouraged” from participating. There were even special “picture-taking spots” where a sample photograph was displayed along with precise instructions on how to get the same results.

At the time of the 1960 opening a wire-service story disclosed a jarring fact: “The setting is so romantic that few visitors would guess that the Union Carbide Corporation’s laboratory is constructing an atomic reactor over the nearest hill.” That did not seem to deter visitors.

Into this surreal wonderland came the Automat in 1962. That summer a promotional photo showed children feeding a deer in front of a wall of vending cubicles – which was odd since deer were forbidden in the gardens. The photo’s caption explained that the Automat was the first to be located outside a city, and described it as having redwood planks and pastel panels rather than the usual marble facing “in keeping with its surroundings.” In the postcard above, the vending wall looks oddly out of place in the high-ceilinged building and has little feel of an urban Horn & Hardart.

At the same time that the Automat moved into the Sterling Forest Gardens, Horn & Hardart’s Food Service and Management Division was advertising that it could furnish In-Plant ‘Automats for Industry’. I suspect the factory installations were very similar to the array in the Gardens.

The Automat was not the first eating place in the Garden’s International Pavilion. A 1961 postcard described the original eating place, a buffet, as “tastefully decorated in international motifs.” Nor was it the last restaurant in the Pavilion. It was there only two years, continuing in business through the 1964 season. By the 1965 Spring Festival the Automat in the Forest had been replaced by the Sterling Farms Restaurant. Later, in 1968, there was a Schrafft’s occupying the Pavilion.

Horn & Hardart also operated a second eating place in the Gardens, Peacock Patio, that had a cafeteria and barbecue. Not far from the park, it ran a Country Store where, ironically, H&H frozen prepared dishes were sold. It’s not clear how long either remained in business under Horn & Hardart’s ownership.

As might be imagined, Sterling Forest Gardens was popular with garden clubs, groups of older adults, and bus tours generally. Without doubt its most unusual guests were Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia and his wife who visited in summer 1963, one day after Tito enemies had infiltrated the Waldorf Towers where the Titos were staying in NYC. Distrustful of the city’s ability to protect him, Marshall Tito cancelled plans to attend a 1,100-person dinner at the United Nations, asking instead to visit a farm. He was taken to Sterling Forest Gardens, where he and his wife lunched at the Automat. Walking through the Automat’s cafeteria line, he chose a hamburger steak, french fries, and macaroni while she accompanied her ground meat with fries, carrots, and spinach.

After several years of slumping attendance, the Gardens closed in 1976. Later, it became a site for medieval jousting.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

5 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, chain restaurants, Offbeat places, patrons

5 responses to “The Automat goes country

  1. Tom

    Thank You Jan for posting this! I remember going there as a child. Really clever research to bring this back to attention.

  2. sandra hunter

    Wow..interesting as always.

  3. Jon Fox

    Sterling Forest also had an air defense radar station emplaced for the Nike missile batteries surrounding New York City. Even after decommissioning, the radar dish was painted black and left in place with an historical marker. It oversaw various events at the park well into the ‘90’s, including bemused attendees at a popular renaissance fair. I don’t know if it still stands, having left the area in the mid 1990’s.

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