: Joe Horn and Frank Hardart open the Automat at 818 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. It's America's first coin-operated cafeteria.
Customers would put nickels into slots, turn a knob and open a little glass door to get their food. Horn and Hardart used Swedish-patented equipment they'd imported from Berlin, which already sported a successful "waiterless restaurant
Some sources place opening day on June 9
, others June 12. What's not in dispute is the place was a bargain. The price of a cup of coffee stayed at a nickel from 1912 (when it was worth about $1.10 in today's money) until 1950 (a mere 45 cents today), before it inevitably rose to two nickels.
The company branched out to New York's Times Square in 1912 and continued to expand its operation. The firm also designed its own improved automat equipment.
Employees serving as "nickel throwers" at the head of the line exchanged currency or large coins for the nickels you'd need for the coin slots. One nickel for coffee, five for the turkey and gravy, another nickel for pie. You'd also have your choice of other diner-food favorites
, including a famous macaroni and cheese, chicken potpie, Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and baked beans. Desserts were also renowned: huckleberry, pumpkin, coconut-cream and custard pies, as well as vanilla ice cream with real vanilla beans, and rice pudding with plump raisins.
It was all prepared in centralized, assembly-line kitchens using standardized recipes that called for quality ingredients. This, plus 85 locations in Philadelphia and New York, made it America's first fast-food chain.
The famous coffee that poured from coin-and-crank-operated dolphin-shaped spouts was never more than 20 minutes old. Irving Berlin composed "Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee" about it, and the ditty became Horn & Hardart's theme song
That's not the Automat's only spot in American culture
. Edward Hopper painted it in 1927. The original Broadway set for The Producers incorporated some of the Automat
. And then there's the Concerto for Horn and Hardart by P.D.Q. Bach (Peter Schickele).
Price increases eventually replaced knuckles full of nickels with quantities of quarters and even special tokens
that you had to go get from the cashier. All this reduced both the efficiency and the charm of the Automat, because efficiency and economy were in fact the very heart of its charm.
The chain finally succumbed to the ever-rising price of ingredients for its original recipes, changing tastes and of course the growing popularity of fast-food chains like McDonald's and Burger King, as well as New York & Philadelphia's plethora of pizza places. Philly's last Automat closed in 1990, and New York's (on East 42nd Street) a year later. The company closed its last bakery cafe
The Automat lives on in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. There you can see an elaborately decorated, 35-foot section of Philadelphia’s original 1902 Horn & Hardart, complete with mirrors and marble. It ain't your father's fast food, but it may be your great-grandma's comfort food.
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