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Futuristic ‘automat’ dining thrived a century ago. Can covid revive it?

A man gets a cup of coffee at the Horn & Hardart Automat Cafeteria, New York, 1986. (Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)
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At first, Horn & Hardart was known for its coffee. Frank Hardart had discovered the French drip method in New Orleans, and he and Joe Horn served up a brew that made their 15-seater Philadelphia restaurant standing room only at lunchtime.

Then, at the turn of the 20th century, a salesman pitched them on a new European machine, a “waiterless restaurant,” or “automatic,” which served food such as sandwiches, chocolate bars and wine automatically, according to “The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece,” a 2002 book by historian Lorraine B. Diehl and Marianne Hardart, a great-granddaughter of Frank Hardart. In 1902, Horn and Hardart imported this equipment and launched the first Horn & Hardart Automat, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia.

Their modified version of the device was “fronted by Carrara [marble] or milk glass on which hung four rectangular glass doors that would be operated by a knob. … All you had to do was make your selection, deposit a nickel, turn the knob, and the door sprang open and your sandwich or piece of pie awaited you,” Diehl and Hardart wrote.

Soon they expanded to New York, and they eventually opened nearly 200 automats, restaurants and retail stores in Philadelphia and New York. Through the mid-20th century, automats were ubiquitous in the two cities, serving up convenience with a side of futurism.

But in 1991, when they closed their last location, it seemed like the end of the automat concept. Until the covid-19 pandemic suddenly made it much more attractive.

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The arrival of the virus shut down restaurants across the country, then saw them reopen with social distancing and outdoor dining. Face-to-face contact was no longer a plus, but a potential liability. Meanwhile, restaurants grappled with labor shortages. It all made the automat ripe for a comeback.

Two new New York-area automats, conceived before the pandemic but launched after it began, are trying to adapt by offering contactless, speedy ways to purchase prepared food. Whether a new generation of automats succeeds depends partly on what they can learn from their predecessors.

Countless New Yorkers fell in love with Horn & Hardart, particularly during its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s, as highlighted in a new documentary about the company directed by Lisa Hurwitz, “The Automat,” which opens in three D.C.-area theaters on Friday.

Among them was Howard Schultz, the Brooklyn-born former chief executive of Starbucks, who attributes the company’s guiding principles to a childhood visit to an automat.

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That visit “absolutely inspired me to think differently through many years of developing Starbucks,” Schultz said in an email. “The level of theater, romance and surprise that Horn & Hardart delivered at the Automat shaped how we thought about and built the Starbucks Experience.”

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also a Brooklyn native, frequented an automat on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, whose food, prices and atmosphere she praised in the documentary. The late Colin Powell, born in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx before eventually becoming secretary of state, patronized an automat in Midtown Manhattan, in part because of its “beautiful diversity.”

Brooklyn-born comedian Mel Brooks, who wrote a song for the documentary about his love affair with automats, favored its ham and cheese sandwich with mustard, but he told the filmmaker, “Don’t tell my mother!” — a Jewish immigrant from Kyiv.

The demise of Horn & Hardart was hastened by post-World War II economic and social changes. As its labor costs rose, it was forced to raise prices. A cup of coffee had always cost a nickel — that was part of the chain’s comforting appeal. In 1950, that price was doubled, to a dime. (That’s the curse of a restaurant based on machines that can only accept coins, with their limited denominations.) Meanwhile, city workers — once automat patrons at dinnertime — began moving to the suburbs.

As Horn & Hardart lost customers, automats started to close. In 1981, the Horn & Hardart Baking Company in Philadelphia filed for bankruptcy, while the New York Horn & Hardart Company began converting some of its automat locations into Burger Kings. The last Philadelphia Horn & Hardart restaurant, in suburban Bala Cynwyd, closed in 1990; the last New York location, at the corner of Third Avenue and 42nd Street, closed in 1991.

Although Horn & Hardart automats are long gone, they have inspired two new automated restaurant concepts.

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Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, located in Manhattan’s East Village, opened in spring 2021. Its founder, Stratis Morfogen, said he “fell in love at first sight” when he was taken at the age of 10 by his restaurateur father to a Horn & Hardart in Times Square.

The shop sells dumplings, which are produced outside the restaurant and steamed behind a glass wall, a process visible to customers. Food can be preordered by phone or at kiosks; it is delivered through temperature-controlled, automated lockers.

Morfogen hopes to franchise Brooklyn Dumpling Shop in the United States and overseas and to license the dumplings for retail sale.

Joe Scutellaro, founder of Automat Kitchen in a mixed-use development in Jersey City, said the “seed of the idea” for this restaurant was planted when, as a child in Hoboken, N.J., he visited an automat in Manhattan with his siblings and their grandmother at Christmastime.

Although he conceived Automat Kitchen 15 years ago, it did not open until January 2021. It served macaroni and cheese and chicken pot pie, both Horn & Hardart classics, as well as flatbreads, tacos, sandwiches and desserts. All food was made fresh in the back of the restaurant; customers could preorder it online or on their phones, or at a kiosk in the front of the restaurant. When an order was ready, the customer received a text and picked it up from a metal cubby with a touch screen monitor door.

Scutellaro is trying to sell Automat Kitchen’s technology and brand through joint venture or licensing agreements, but when he spoke with The Post earlier this year, he was concerned about the restaurant’s prospects in its Jersey City location. Automat Kitchen’s original opening date was postponed from April 2020 because of the pandemic, and many office workers in the building where it is located still have not returned. In March, following weak sales, Automat Kitchen ended its lease and vacated the premises.

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In the long run, Scutellaro believes, contactless dining will be attractive, in part because of “the shift in the labor market. People don’t want front-of-house jobs, to be cashiers.”

Beth Forrest, a professor in the applied food studies program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., believes 21st-century automats offer nostalgia to an older generation who remember the original and novelty to younger diners who do not.

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“On the psychological level, they offer a moment of excited anticipation, almost magical, when you open up a box and find something you want inside,” she said.

Alec Shuldiner, a producer of the documentary who wrote his doctoral thesis at Cornell University on technological systems and the automat, is skeptical about prospects for 21st-century automats. As he wrote in a review of Eatsa, a small, San Francisco-based automat chain that closed its last restaurant in 2019, “Here in San Francisco we spend a lot of time listening to computers, but like most people most places in most times, when we go out to eat we seek sustenance in a smile.”

The magic of Horn & Hardart in its heyday undoubtedly will be hard to replicate. Marianne Hardart said of her lifelong encounters with former customers of the chain, “Every person I spoke to had a unique experience, telling me what it meant to go into an automat, to get nickels, run around as a child, pick up the food and bring it to a table. One of the things that was so special about it was that it was not the same experience for any two people. Everyone’s memories are distinct.”

clarification

This story has been updated to clarify that the last Philadelphia Horn & Hardart location, in suburban Bala Cynwyd, which closed in 1990, was a restaurant and not an automat. This story has also been updated to reflect the closure of Automat Kitchen in Jersey City.

Jane L. Levere is a New York-based freelancer for a variety of publications, including Architectural Digest, CNN, Metropolis, the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine.

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