For those over fifty and who grew up in New York City, or Philadelphia, the name Horn & Hardet will bring back memories of a chain of restaurants that were unlike any other dining establishment in the city. They were the ultimate self-serve restaurant that we surprisingly have not seen since they closed down over forty years ago. A chain of restaurants in which all the food items were stored in a wall that was basically one giant vending machine. It was the ultimate dining establishment for people who did not like to wait for their food.
If you had never had the chance to eat at a Horn & Hardat, the experience went something like this. Depending on the location you walked into, you were greeted by walls that were lined with small glass windows in front of small compartments that had different food items in them. You put your money in the slot next to the food items and then pulled the glass door open to get your food. The dining area was set up like a school cafeteria with individual tables. What people do not remember or never mention about these Horn & Hardet Automoats is that they were not just automated.
I used to go to the 3rd Avenue location in New York City with my Father and Uncle on Sunday mornings in the early 1980s. I clearly remember waiters coming to our tables and bringing us orange juice or coffee that we could order. I also remember that you were also able to order some food made fresh if there was nothing in the vending machines that you wanted. We would sit there for hours and no one ever made us feel like we had to leave. It might not have been like that in the beginning, but by the 80s the ones that were left had clearly tried to keep up with the times to a certain point without changing what they were known for.
History Of Horn & Hardart
The historical tale of Horn & Hardart Automats originated on December 22, 1888, when Frank Hardart and Joseph Horn opened up their first restaurant together on 39 South Thirteenth Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hardart, a German immigrant who grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, introduced his southern-style chicory-flavored coffee from a small shop that only had a single counter and fifteen stools. As a means to gain public attention, he promoted it as a “gilt-edge” luncheonette. It quickly became a local attraction and business thrived. In 1898, Horn & Hardart Baking Company became a corporation.
In Berlin, Germany, there were a series of automat-style restaurants run by Max Sielaff that grew in popularity. Inspired by his success, these two businessmen managed to acquire patented vending machines before opening up shop on June 12, 1902. This was located at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia. The first automat in New York City opened on July 2, 1912, in Times Square. A week later, a second New York location sprouted up on Broadway and E. 14th St, close to Union Square. The format of these waiterless restaurants may have borrowed the concept from Germany and its European neighbors but was significantly modified in order to best accommodate an American consumer base.
Frank Hardart, who was born in 1850 in Sondenheim, Germany, migrated to New Orleans, Louisiana, America in 1858 with his widowed mother and three siblings. While there he worked as a dishwasher and cook in various restaurants. While working at a lunch counter at thirteen years old, he learned about French-drip coffees. It was this brewing technique that served as a winning formula that would inspire Hardart to travel to Philadelphia in 1876.
It was his idea to promote this brewing idea at the city’s Centennial Exhibition while it was holding a function engineered to boost restauranteurs and their businesses. Hardart’s attempt to promote his New Orleans coffee brew idea was met with failure, causing him to return home in disappointment. While there, he saved whatever money he could before moving back to Philadelphia so he could make a second attempt to achieve his coffee-selling dream.
In 1888, while working at a luncheonette named Joe Smith’s, Frank Hardart saw an advertisement for a restaurant partner that was placed by Joseph Horn. He was the only person who answered the ad which read, “I’m your man,” along with Hardart’s mailing address. Later, these two partnered up and began their restaurant together. Meanwhile, Horn went to Boston to learn more about a waiterless restaurant called Thompson’s Spa while Hardart visited Berlin, Germany to learn more about automats. For $30,000 USD, these two men bought machinery so they could set up their own automat in Philadelphia.
This equipment took a year for Germany to build before it was sent for delivery. Unfortunately, the boat that was assigned to carry it collided with another ship and it sank. Although there was insurance to cover this loss, the automat had to wait another year to replace the machinery that was lost. Once it was finally received, the doors to Philadelphia’s first automat in 1902. By 1912, there were four of them in the city. Six years after this, however, Frank Hardart died that saw his half of the business run by his sons and later their sons.
Brewing a New Era
Prior to automats, coffee was regarded as harsh and bitter. The smooth brew formula from automats now saw this product flow as a cleaner beverage that smelled and tasted fresh. Each time an employee would brew coffee, it went on a twenty-minute timer. Whatever wasn’t consumed at that point would be discarded to make way for a fresh pot. Another requirement for employees was wearing a black uniform as cashiers who handled coins found their hands were becoming tarnished.
By 1924, a series of retail stores sold prepackaged automat consumer favorites. The advertising slogan used was “Less Work for Mother” as it promoted take-out as an alternative to meals cooked at home. Adding to this company’s popularity was a radio program, The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, which began airing in 1927 with a cast of children and sometimes an adult celebrity such as Frankie Avalon. At first, this program aired on Philadelphia’s WCAU Radio. It wouldn’t be until the 1940s that New York’s NBC Radio would pick it up. In 1948, The Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour began as a televised production that first aired in Philadelphia, then New York.
By 1941, the year Joseph Horn died, there were one hundred and fifty-seven retail outlets in Philadelphia and New York City that featured Horn & Hardart Automats. On average, these served approximately 500,000 customers per day. There were also over fifty restaurants that served an average of 350,000 New Yorkers per day between them. When the company opted to split into two entities in 1953, it was Horn & Hardart Company that was located and traded on the American Stock Exchange while it was Horn & Hardart Baking Company that was located and traded on Philadelphia’s Stock Exchange. This was during the timeline when the company was at its prime.
Automats featured prepared foods that were accessed by coins and tokens, sitting on display behind glass windows. Consumers could choose a variety of food items such as beans, buns, cakes, coffee, and pies through this method. Each time an item was selected, it would be restocked by staff members located on the other side. Items costing more than this, which was about a dollar, would have to be taken to cashiers for purchase. That would change later on as the coin mechanisms were replaced to handle paper money.
Clean into the 1960s, Horn & Hardart remained popular as automats and a restaurant chain. This began to change once fast-food restaurants began to make their big impact as a dining option for customers. Instead of relying on vending machines, customers could now interact with counter cashiers directly. This meant using normal cash transactions instead of relying on just coins. Because of this, the company began to see a decline in their ability to keep up with customer appeal.
The 1970s saw Burger King replacing several Horn & Hardart Automats and restaurant locations. In an effort to stay competitive, there was a purchase of the Royal Inn in Las Vegas, Nevada before investing in Bojangles’ Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits. In 1990, however, that fast-food chain was sold to a California investment company for twenty million dollars. As for the Royal Inn, it was rebranded to Royal Americana Hotel and remodeled to sport a New York theme. Unfortunately, due to financial difficulties, this was closed down. It was later sold to an investment group in 1985 for over fifteen million dollars. In 1987, there was an attempt to open up two 1950-themed Dine-O-Mats but it was a short-lived venture. The era of self-service restaurants under Horn & Hardart’s banner officially came to an end in April 1991 when New York’s 42nd Street and Third Avenue location closed its doors for good.
From 1990 until 2002, a bankrupt Horn & Hardart Baking Company resumed partial operations when two entrepreneurs gave the production of food a go. Since 2015, there has been a Horn & Hardart Coffee in New York and a Horn & Hardart Bakery Cafe in Philadelphia. There are also remnants of the original 1902 restaurant at the Smithsonian Institution. The story also has it there is a warehouse in upstate New York that currently houses these infamous automat vending machines. Will they ever come back, at least as museum pieces? Only time will tell.