Tuesday, September 13, 2011

NYC Vintage Image: Fast Food's Birth At Horn & Hardart Automat

The Horn & Hardart Automat that thrived in Times Square from 1912 to 1991 is among the most beloved relics of vintage New York City. The food services company was founded in Philadelphia in 1888 and opened the first automat in the nation in Philly in 1902. When the German-born concept came to NYC in July 1912—opening in Times Square and Union Square the same week—it ushered in the original era of fast food.

The automat was remarkably simple: Instead of waiting for waitresses to take an order and drop off lunch, self-serving vending machines were lined with hundreds of little glass windows showing fresh food served on green-on-white china kept stocked from the other side.

Slip a nickel in the slot and twist the chrome-plated knob for a fresh piece of lemon meringue pie or today's special Salisbury steak and a side of macaroni & cheese, baked beans or creamed spinach. Add a cup of coffee (served from the mouth of a chrome dolphin copied from a Pompeian fountain) for another nickel, have a seat with your newspaper and a cigarette... and lunch is served. What a sweet deal.

By the peak of its popularity, from the Great Depression to the post-war years, Horn & Hardart was a culinary treasure and a technical marvel. This was the industrial revolution—and you could eat it. At the time of Horn's death in 1941, the business had 157 restaurants in New York and Philly, serving a peak of 800,000 patrons and 72,000 pieces of pie a day (with a menu of 400 items), driving the company to go public.

Irving Berlin, the composer of "God Bless America," wrote a famous song about the coffee at H&H, "Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee," which became the restaurant's theme song. Horn & Hardat also opened retail shops selling prepackaged automat favorites, cafeterias and bakery shops, with the slogan "Less Work for Mother."

But, of course, all good things come to an end. By the '60s and '70s, fast food joints had become prevalent and customers moved to the suburbs. By the mid-'70s, some of H&H's locations were replaced by the owners with Burger King franchises. Can you imagine how the concept might work today? Slide your debit card through the slot for an $8.25 burger. Oops, it's jammed...

In April 1991, the last New York Horn & Hardart Automat closed, on the southeast corner of 42nd Street and Third Avenue. The site of the original store at 1557 Broadway (between 46th and 47th) is now the three-story Grand Slam Souvenirs. I was in the store in July and a friend pointed out an original Art Nouveau ceiling decoration that miraculously remains from H&H.

Meanwhile, a beautifully ornate 35-foot piece of Philadelphia’s 1902 Horn & Hardart is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, with mirrors, marble and marquetry.