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Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart captured the essence of America with one brilliant, liberating, egalitarian, high-concept idea a little more than a century ago. They created The Automat. Sure, the marketing of a restaurant as a series of vending machines was not original with them. There were actually a number of similar restaurants thriving in Europe before Horn & Hardart (as they came to be known to all America--with an ampersand) opened the first Automat in 1902 in the city of Philadelphia. As a patron, you would put a nickel into a slot, hold your coffee cup under a spout, and out would pour a delicious cupful of New Orleans-style coffee. You could put in another nickel and open the glass door and take out a piece of cherry pie. Every dish cost a multiple of nickels, so you could get a full Salisbury steak dinner for, say, seven nickels. You never saw any of the people preparing the food, although if you were lucky, you might see a disembodied hand put a new piece of pie in the slot where you had just removed a piece. Everything was automatic!

As a boy I was captivated by the idea of visiting an Automat; I had seen Automats represented in movies and cartoons throughout my childhood. Though they are now part of a distant past, they very much seemed to be futuristic in their vision. I had no idea that the first Automat opened its doors on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia because it had always seemed like a New York City institution. But both cities harbored these gleaming, streamlined cafeterias that literally catered to the masses, no matter what walk of life one happened to be trodding.

Below: Edward Hopper's classic painting "Automat"

Below is a classic Warner Brothers cartoon starring my life-coach Bugs Bunny in "A Hare Grows in Manhattan" (1947). At about the 5:15 mark, Bugs makes his way into an Automat. Following is a scene from the Pre-Code film Sadie McKee (1934) with a destitute Joan Crawford spending her only nickel. And after that Jean Arthur and Ray Milland's plotting leads to a slapstick melee in the film Easy Living (1937).

Horn & Hardart were determined to provide eateries with terrific food and an embracing ambiance at modest prices. The restaurants were spotless and gleaming. If all you could afford was a cup of coffee and you needed to get off your feet for a few minutes, you could put a nickel into the slot and hold your cup under the dolphin's head spout and get a terrific cup of coffee. You could then sit at a table alone, or perhaps you'd be at a table with other patrons. They might be rich or poor. They might be Americans or newly-landed immigrants. They might be highly educated or they might have dropped out of school in the fourth grade. Celebrities or nobodies. But in Horn & Hardart's, you and they were equals.

By 1924, the brothers started marketing their "comfort food" specialties for home purchase. "Less Work for Mother" was their sales pitch. Mac and Cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans...and oh, those pies! At its peak, there were two hundred Automats that served more than 800,000 diners daily. It was the biggest restaurant chain in the world and really the first fast-food franchise.

One of the great, delightful mysteries at the restaurant was the line at the change counter. You would give a dollar bill to the cashier, and she would scoop up twenty nickels with her hand and pass them to you. These women (they were always women) never counted out twenty nickels. They knew by the weight and mass in their hand whether they had exactly twenty nickels! And they were invariably right. Never a nickel short. Never a nickel extra. It was black magic!

Joseph Horn died in 1941, but the company he co-founded thrived, especially in New York. The post-war environment began the decline of Horn & Hardart. People began migrating to the suburbs after the soldiers came home from WW II. Other fast-food companies blossomed as competition. What really hurt was inflation. When a cup of coffee went from a nickel to a dime, the proverbial handwriting was on the wall.

In the 70s and 80s, homeless people would camp out in the Automats to keep warm and scrounge from the plates of patrons. That chased many diners away. In April of 1991, the company called it quits, and the last Automat closed its doors, including the hundreds of little doors which had opened at the drop of a nickel to provide a great dining experience.

Below: the interior of the last Automat on 42nd St.

I only got to go a handful of times in my youth, but I have rarely been so excited. It might as well have been The Jetsons! One of my favorite contemporary writers, Paul Auster, had a character refer to the Automat as "twentieth-century American efficiency in its craziest, most delightful incarnation". There's even a segment from the original Horn & Hardart Automat enclosed in the Smithsonian! Last year, Lisa Hurwitz released a loving and wistful documentary, simply called The Automat. If you subscribe to Kanopy you can watch it for free. But it's available for rental on all other streaming platforms. Mel Brooks graciously offered his services to the director and even sings a little song in tribute to these bygone palaces. Here is the trailer, which includes testimonials from the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell.

Strangely enough, the concept behind The Automat has returned in the 21st Century. There are pizzerias where your personal pizza is made and distributed by machine. Brooklyn has a dumpling shop, and you just need to order on your cell phone and then go pick your dish up--steaming hot! Taco Bell is going automated too. Robotic machines have replaced the faceless personnel behind the glass-case doors with the little knob handles. And as we know, everything old is new again. Even Horn & Hardart coffee is back.


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