I was watching the 1956 movie, “The Catered Affair” which starred Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, and Debbie Reynolds, and in one scene she rendezvoused with her fiance at a downtown restaurant. There was a wall in the restaurant with several small windows where one could get a meal for a nickel and next to it was a wall that dispenses coffee out of a dolphin spout. That was the Automat of yesteryears.
During its prime, the Automat was a game-changer. Absent wait staff, customers go to nickel throwers to get change, then proceed to the wall to pick their meal of choice, and then their signature coffee. Here at the Automat of Horn and Hardart they did not discrimate whom to serve: everybody was treated the same way. Regardless of your skin color, or religiion or gender, the Automat provided a sense of security and acceptance.
But the changing landscape, economics, and trends led to its demise.
With the pandemic that requires contact-less service, there is now a revival of the concept. Several businesses have started utilizing the use of contact-less delivery of food; but this time, with an upgraded technology.
For New Yorkers, the Automat does bring back a lot of wonderful memories of their childhood. Quality food for $0.05 and superb coffee for the same price were worth the wait for a seat at the table in any branch of the Automat that’s always guaranteed to be full during its heyday.
What made it enticing for the earlier generations of New Yorkers to come to Horn and Hardart was you get topnotch food quality for so much less and you didn’t have to tip.
But behind the success of the Automat operation were a complex web of production intricacies, uniformity, speedy transfer, uncompromising attitude towards quality, among many other behind-the-scene dealings.
With the pandemic still raging today, it makes me think about how revolutionary this business model was when business partners Joe Horn and Frank Hardart started it in the early 20th century in Philadelphia.
The contact-less feature surely suits the pandemic age. But I really do wonder, being a coffee drinker, if any business attempting to revive the iconic Automat would be able to replicate the good coffee for a low, low price. How about a dollar for a cup of joe? Hmmm I can’t wait for the return of the Automat. I just hope it will be able to match the great food selections that the original one had back in the day.
What once was hip in the past is once again going to take the future by storm.