Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horne & Hardart's Masterpieces

Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horne & Hardart's Masterpieces

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by Marianne Hardart, Lorraine Diehl
     
 

On the 100th birthday of Horn & Hardart, a look back at one of America’s most beloved institutions

A coin-operated glass-and-chrome wonder, Horn & Hardart’s Automats revolutionized the way Americans ate when they opened up in Philadelphia and New York in the early twentieth century. In a country where the industrial revolution had just taken hold,

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Overview

On the 100th birthday of Horn & Hardart, a look back at one of America’s most beloved institutions

A coin-operated glass-and-chrome wonder, Horn & Hardart’s Automats revolutionized the way Americans ate when they opened up in Philadelphia and New York in the early twentieth century. In a country where the industrial revolution had just taken hold, eating at a restaurant with self-serving vending machines rather than waitresses and Art Deco architecture instead of stuffy dining rooms was an unforgettable experience. The Automat served freshly made food for the price of a few coins, and no one made a better cup of coffee. By the peak of its popularity—from the Great Depression to the post-war years—the Automat was more than an inexpensive place to buy a good meal; it was a culinary treasure, a technical marvel, and an emblem of the times.

The Automat will take readers back to the days of Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth, Walter Winchell and Jack Benny, the Brooklyn Dodgers and shows at Radio City. Through beautiful archival photography, candid interviews, delicious recipes, and wonderfully evocative memorabilia, Lorraine Diehl and Marianne Hardart bring to life a time when a handful of nickels and the twist of a wrist bought a good square meal—Macaroni and Cheese, Boston Baked Beans, Chicken Pot Pie, Rice Pudding, and all the other favorites whose recipes are in these pages.

The Automat was a true American treasure, and here is its tribute.

“I have always thought that the Automat in New York has the best scrambled eggs in the world.” —Gregory Peck

“To have your own stack of nickels placed in your tiny hands; to be able to choose your own food, richly on display like museum pieces; to make quick and final decisions at the age of eight; this was a lesson in financial dealings that not even two years at the Wharton School could buy today.” —Neil Simon

“Oh, be still my heart! I used to shine shoes when I was fourteen years old. And when I was a little ahead, I would stop at Horn & Hardart.” —Tony Curtis

“I lived at the Automat. They had the greatest chocolate milk. When I moved to Philadelphia, I apportioned less than two dollars a day to eat on, and the Automat was the only place I could do it.” —Dick Clark

“I went to the Automat all the time. I grew up going to the Automat. The food was delicious. And it was wonderful.” —Woody Allen

“The first time I came to New York, I had a meal at the Automat. I had heard about the Automat, and I had to go see what it was all about.” —Leonard Nimoy

“I had the same lunch every day: three vegetables, a roll, and cocoa. All for twenty-five cents.” —Jerome Robbins

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this wonderfully nostalgic trip, readers are taken to a place where nickels slipped in a slot yield food from a little window in the wall; where drinks pour from spigots in that same wall; where simple nutritious meals and modest but satisfying desserts are the order of the day; where a superb cup of coffee is always available. Philadelphia and New York were lucky enough to have these cafeterias, which opened in 1902 and closed in 1991. Diehl (The Late Great Pennsylvania Station) and Hardart (granddaughter of Automat co-founder Frank Hardart) trace the development of this unique institution-a democratic eating establishment where one could sit at a table with royalty, school kids, the homeless, businessmen, housewives or show biz names. Founders Joe Horn and Frank Hardart knew the appeal of their "nickel cup of coffee" and "ten cent piece of pie." Recipes from the Art Deco chrome and glass servers include staples such as Cream Spinach, Baked Beans, Pumpkin Pie, Beef and Noodles with Burgundy Sauce and Mashed Turnips. The authors include interviews, archival photos, and chapters on the various radio and television shows Horn & Hardart inspired. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780609610749
Publisher:
Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/19/2002
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
128
Product dimensions:
7.74(w) x 7.68(h) x 0.53(d)

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Chapter 1

Mr. Horn, meet Mr. Hardart

I went to the Automat all the time. I grew up going to the Automat. The food was delicious. And it was wonderful.
—Woody Allen

There were two things that Joe Horn loved: food and Philadelphia. No problem in the life of the young man-including the long days he spent in the family surgical-appliance factory-was too big that it couldn't be diminished by a good meal. And no city compared with his beloved Philadelphia. But he didn't learn that until he had crossed the country by railroad.

The journey came about because of Joe's love of food. Sitting around the family dining room table one night, young Joe was pestering his two older brothers about joining them in the restaurant they had opened on Market Street. He did this with such regularity that his exasperated siblings pleaded with their mother to get her youngest child a restaurant of his own. What better way to burst his balloon, they decided, than to let him see for himself how difficult it was to run a restaurant?

Horn's mother was a widow who had raised her seven children on the profits from her late husband's factory; she had no intention of throwing away her money. There would be no restaurant for Joe Horn. Instead, she would send him on a trip, one that would take him to the Pacific Coast, with many stops along the way, where he would hopefully discover another business to claim his interest.

But when the twenty-seven-year-old Horn returned to Philadelphia, the only thing he could talk about were the restaurants he had visited. His mother decided that she hadn't taken a firm enough hand in directing her youngest son, so she sent him away again, this time to Boston with a list of businesses for him to look into. One afternoon, a hungry Joe Horn dropped into Thompson's Spa, a popular restaurant catering to working people whose demands were simple: a good meal delivered quickly. It was in this noisy, bustling place, without a trace of elegance, that Joe discovered his heart's desire: to open a restaurant like Thompson's Spa in Philadelphia.

In 1888, a thousand dollars was a daunting sum of money, especially when placed in the bank account of a young man who hadn't the foggiest idea what he should do with it. It was one thing to convince his mother to give in and stake him in a restaurant. It was quite another to figure out how to put the money to use. As much as Joe Horn loved restaurants, it never occurred to him that he hadn't a clue about running one.

Frank Hardart didn't have that problem. No one in the family of the tall, thin, thirty-eight-year-old man could have given him ten dollars, much less a thousand, to start his own business. Like Joe Horn, he was raised by a widowed mother, but that is all they had in common. Frank Hardart was eight years old when he emigrated to America in 1858 with his mother, two sisters, and his older brother, Philip. The fatherless family was too poor to travel to an area where a heavy German-American population could help them assimilate, so the Bavarian-born Hardarts settled in New Orleans, the city in which their boat had docked.

Life was a constant struggle, with most of the family's income coming from Philip's truck farm, where vegetables were grown and brought to market. At thirteen, young Frank took a job as a dishwasher at a lunch counter in a shabby restaurant in the city's French Quarter; the pay was three dollars a week. The owner rarely showed up for work, so washing dishes was only one part of Frank's long day. He would open up in the morning and close the place at night; he cooked, served food, and acted as cashier. And he was given one more task that, unbeknownst to the overworked boy, would one day help to make him a rich man: Each day, Frank Hardart roasted and ground the coffee, taking great pride in brewing it well. Even in a run-down luncheonette, the citizens of New Orleans expected first-rate coffee. Unlike the rest of the country's coffee, which was boiled and sometimes clarified with egg shells, New Orleans coffee was brewed by the French-drip method, ensuring a mellow flavor with no bitterness.

At twenty, Frank Hardart was working in a different restaurant, this time on St. Charles Street, earning ten dollars a week, when he noticed something: Customers arriving for lunch would often be cranky, and it wasn't until they had their first few sips of coffee that their spirits would lift and their moods soften. Since only those privileged to live in New Orleans had the luxury of good French-drip coffee, why not take that coffee to the rest of the country and allow everyone else to enjoy the same experience?

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was being held in Philadelphia, and restaurants were humming with out-of-town visitors. With just enough money for a one-way rail ticket, Hardart decided to take his talent to that city and try his luck. After taking a dishwasher job, he attempted to introduce the owner to the New Orleans way of brewing coffee. But the busy man had no time for him. Hardart fared no better in other restaurants. Most of the customers he encountered were creatures of habit: Having known only the taste of boiled coffee, they were quite content to drink more of the same.

Hardart returned to New Orleans, poor but undaunted. For ten years, he thought about little else other than going back to Philadelphia. Timing, he decided, had been his only problem. All he needed was one more shot at the City of Brotherly Love, and they would all be drinking his coffee. Year after year, he scraped and saved. He found a wife-a young Irishwoman named Mary Bruen-who believed in his dream enough to scrape and save along with him. When they finally arrived in Philadelphia in 1886, there was little for Mary to hold on to but her husband's dreams.

There were more restaurant jobs-two years of them, waiting on tables for small wages-with little else to sustain the couple but Frank Hardart's now-threadbare dream. He was invited to become a partner in a New Jersey soda fountain, but no sooner had it gotten off the ground when cold weather marked its end. The thirty-eight-year-old Hardart finally settled into a job at a place called Joe Smith's, a luncheonette in a run-down section of Philadelphia. It looked as if his dream to bring a good cup of coffee to the citizens of Philadelphia would remain precisely that.

In another part of town, though, Joe Horn was trying to breathe life into his dream. He knew he couldn't afford to squander the thousand dollars his mother had advanced him; this was his only chance, and he had to make it work. He decided that he needed a partner, someone who knew the nuts and bolts of the restaurant business. In 1888, the twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneur placed an ad in a local newspaper, and waited. There were no replies. Finally, one arrived from someone with a rooming-house address. There was no formal letter, only a torn-off remnant from a sugar bag. On it were written three words: "I'm your man." It was signed F. Hardart.

The new partners, each desperate for success, were not about to allow any moss to grow beneath their feet. They immediately went about scouring the streets of Philadelphia for a suitable property, finally coming upon a tiny, eleven-by-seventeen-foot lunchroom at 39 South Thirteenth Street, opposite Wanamaker's Department Store. On December 22, 1888, three days before Christmas, the first Horn & Hardart restaurant opened. There were no tables, just a counter long enough to accommodate fifteen stools. On the window were the names j. horn, f. hardart.

Joe Horn served and Frank Hardart worked in the kitchen, preparing the food and finally brewing the French-drip coffee that earned immediate praise. "You have the best cup of coffee in town," one first-day customer said, a comment that would hold the same sacred place between the partners as a first earned dollar bill. Days before their grand opening, the enterprising duo had done a bit of self-promotion, dropping off business cards in prominent areas of town, letting everyone know that genuine New Orleans coffee had arrived in Philadelphia. This delicious "gilt-edge" brew-a term Hardart coined for his French-drip coffee-would be the anchor for a venture that was brimming with ambition.

This was a heady time for the new partners. Even with the paltry sum of $7.25 in the cash register at the end of their first day, they both knew they had the desire, focus, and talent to make a success. In fact, as news of the luncheonette's great coffee spread, more customers came until it was standing-room-only at lunch. Horn, the young man who always wanted to own a restaurant in his native Philadelphia, was finally living his dream. For the hardworking Hardart, this tiny luncheonette marked the end of his poverty-ridden days eking out a living as a dishwasher and waiter.

Hardart took great pride in his cooking, and Horn maintained Olympian standards of quality. Before long, more lunchrooms owned by the partners began popping up around town. From the beginning, the partners were keenly aware of pleasing their customers. In a 1934 New York Evening Journal article, Clarence E. Heller described his encounter with Frank Hardart in that first restaurant: "I can still see him in the tiny, vest-pocket edition restaurant, grasping hands of customers he knew, asking them how things were, inviting them back."

To keep costs down, a central commissary was built at 202-210 South Tenth Street, where the food for all the restaurants was baked and prepared. Years later, the commissary concept made it possible for Joe Horn to maintain his exacting standards in 165 locations-Automats, cafeterias, and retail food shops in two major cities. By 1898, the partnership that had been sealed with nothing more than a handshake was incorporated, becoming the Horn & Hardart Baking Co., with thirty-seven-year-old Joe Horn as president and forty-eight-year-old Frank Hardart as secretary-treasurer. And then a third man entered the picture. His name is unknown and unimportant, but what he was selling would soon change the dining habits of Philadelphians and New Yorkers.This Could Be the Start of Something Big!

Oh, be still my heart! I used to shine shoes when I was fourteen years old. And when I was a little ahead, I would stop at Horn & Hardart. The pumpkin pie was delicious.

Tony Curtis

A century was ending and another about to begin, one that was anxious to leave the sensibilities of the 1800s to history books and museums. The salesman who approached Joe Horn and Frank Hardart was offering a product that would serve the modern, faster-paced society that marked the new twentieth century splendidly. The salesman had been having trouble convincing potential clients-New Yorkers in particular-that his revolutionary gadget would fit their new lifestyles. He decided to try his luck in Philadelphia, where he had heard of two enterprising men who might be open to new ideas.

His product was a Swiss invention, with a prototype manufactured in Germany, and it served food-sandwiches, chocolate bars, and wine-automatically. It was known as the "waiterless restaurant," or simply the "automatic." All the salesman had were drawings and plans; the actual machine was on the other side of the ocean. But Frank Hardart had never had a proper vacation, so he decided he'd go to Germany and give this new contraption the once-over. Automatic or waiterless restaurants were not uncommon in Europe, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia, although their scale was much more modest than what their future held in America. When Hardart saw the machine, he was not merely intrigued-it was love at first sight. With no hesitation, he parted with thirty thousand dollars to have one made and shipped to Philadelphia.

It took the Quisisana Company a year to manufacture the machine. In 1901, it was shipped to Liverpool, transferred to the Waesland, bound for Philadelphia. A few hours out of port, the Waesland encountered heavy fog and collided with another ship. Although its crew and passengers were rescued, the steamer sank, dragging the Automat to the bottom of the sea. Fortunately, the machine was insured. In 1902, a second arrived in Philadelphia, just in time for the June 9 opening of the newest restaurant, at 818 Chestnut Street: the first Horn & Hardart Automat.

These early machines that came from Germany-there eventually would be four-were a far cry from the wall of streamlined rectangular glass doors that serve modern memory. The original ornate brass contrivances were crude, providing more novelty than speed. The food inside the little windows was actually a display, a sample of what one could order-not revealing the order itself. For hot dishes, customers bought a token from a cashier and deposited it into the coin slot for the desired food. They would then wait while a cook in the basement prepared their dish and cranked it up to the dining room on a dumbwaiter. A second token was inserted before the machine surrendered the dish. Obtaining cold food and desserts was a simpler matter, since they were already prepared. Still, the customer had to wait for the journey from basement to dining room. Coffee- and milk-dispensing machines were installed, although the now-familiar dolphin-head spout would not be introduced until Joe Horn came across the inspiration for them on a trip to Italy. (Two beverages to be found in the early Automats that did not survive into the mid-century were beer and wine.)

Three years later, in 1905, a second Automat opened at 101 South Juniper Street, followed by a third in 1907 at 909 Market Street. The last Automat imported from Germany was modified before a fourth Automat opened in 1912 at 21 South Eleventh Street. By now, Horn and Hardart had their chief engineer, John Fritsche, design a machine that would cater to American tastes. (Fritsche continued designing machines for Horn & Hardart until his death in 1947 at seventy-five.) He came up with the idea of a unit fronted by Carrara or milk glass on which hung four rectangular glass doors that would be operated by a knob. No tokens, no waiting for someone to put together your meal. 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.

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