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


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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