Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Automat Turns 100 Today

The predecessor to the modern fast food chain was the Automat. One hundred years ago this week the first one opened in Times Square according to THIS article (with photos) on The History Channel website. If you don't recognize the name 'Automat,' your memory may be jogged by those photos of art deco, wall mounted vending machines dispensing coffee and sandwiches for a nickle or a dime to the fedora-wearing masses.

I was always fascinated by this concept, and wished I'd had a chance to visit one. I was sure they'd died out in the 1960s or '70s.  But in fact the last one closed in 1991, apparently.

Not everyone was so impressed, however. “'The number of cheap quick-fire food hells is appalling,' bemoaned James Huneker in The New York Times in 1914. 'Eating and drinking are rapidly entering the category of the lost fine arts,' he lamented. 'The young folk nowadays are not epicures… They are in too much of a hurry to dance or to ride, to sit long at table and dine with discrimination.'”

Here are a few other interesting highlights from the article:
  •   "The Automat entered its heyday after Prohibition killed the saloons and their free lunches and the Great Depression crimped bank accounts."
  •   "French-drip coffee, always piping hot and potent, was Horn & Hardart’s most popular item. It was freshly brewed every 20 minutes, and until 1950 it cost only a nickel a cup."
  •  "With inflation pushing the price of items higher and higher, the coin-operated machines were no longer efficient or practical. Quality declined, and the fast food chains spawned by the Automats began to eat their lunch. Horn & Hardart itself purchased Burger King and Arby’s franchises, along with Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits"

1 comment:

  1. Actually, while the first one in New York opened in 1912, the first AUTOMAT opened ten years previously in Philadelphia. The were three Automats in Philly and three cafeteria style Horn & Hardarts in Philadelphia before the chain thought it was ready to expand to NY.

    Al Mazzone