I’m old enough to remember the Automat – a clean, well-lit place where you inserted a coin in a wall of little glass boxes, a door sprung open, and you retrieved whatever was behind it, typically a sandwich or slice of pie. Automats were wildly popular — at one point there were 40 Horn & Hardart Automats in New York City.
If you were down on your luck, the Automat was a great place to hang out and mooch for free stuff. The great Jean Shepherd — primordial Night Person and “Times Square Indian” — told it best on WOR in 1974: The trick was to track down the counter where they stocked lemons — they always had them for folks who liked iced tea. You’d grab a slice of lemon, and then move down to the place where they kept the sugar packets, where you’d grab a bunch (sugar packets were also gratis).
Now the final piece: a glass of ice water, which the Automat supplied to anyone who walked in. Squeeze the lemon into the glass, add some sugar, and there you have it: free lemonade.
In the glory days of the Automat (1897 to 1987), there were a ton of people who worked behind that stainless steel wall (Doris Day talks through one of the little windows in the film below). Future Automats will doubtless be populated by robots under some level of human supervision.
Automats, like “greasy spoons” and independent cafeterias (remember The Belmore on Park Avenue South?) were killed off by the likes of McDonalds and Burger King. Let’s be frank about this: they were never “nice” places — at least the ones I visited. You needed some coffee, a little pie, and then you were gone. Yes, they were clean, the coffee was good, but they were never home; their main purpose was to fortify you for the New York Night Ahead.
The last H&H holdout I remember was on 42nd Street a block East of Grand Central Terminal — by the 1970s the place was populated by ragged homeless people (back in that unenlightened that time we didn’t call them homeless people; we called them “bums” — a cruel term from the 1930s that’s thankfully been retired from popular usage). So when the Automat went away in the early 1990s nobody mourned. It just joined Schraffts’s, Chock Full O’Nuts, Zum Zums, Prexies (“the Hamburger with a College Education”), Howard Johnsons, Hamburger Train, the Belmore Cafeteria, and countless other restaurants that had outlived their usefulness to pitiless Gotham.
But now COVID threatens the very idea of restaurants, especially because science has recently determined that your likelihood of being infected with COVID is somewhat proportional to the time spent among humans spreading the virus (often through loud talking). So the selling point of any future restaurant endeavors — until we get the virus under control (2021?) — will be to get you in and out quickly — and consider it inevitable that much of the speedy work will be done by robots.
Automats – along with drive-in movie theaters, seemed poised to make a comeback, as this article in Eater illustrates. At least one Automat-style operation– a dumpling joint in Brooklyn — is opening up right now and vending machines have never looked better.
Low- or No-Touch vending machines are the perfect remedy to revive the restaurant business, which is facing extinction due to COVID. Given that commercial real estate prices are likely to drop in the near future, it’s a no-brainer to site a new-age Automat in an otherwise neglected urban space. Just set the tables far away from each other, aggressively vent the exhaust, sanitize the space continually, and you’re almost as safe as if you were eating alone.
BTW Horn & Hardart still exists — as a coffee company based in Philadelphia. As long as they continue to own the trademark, there’s nothing stopping them from being part of a revival of the low-touch restaurant.
Everything old is new again.