More than a necessity, meals are a fundamental part of nourishment in our lives. I am reminded of the scene in the 1962 movie “That Touch of Mink,” in the Automat, Horn & Hardart. Woven into the fabric of popular culture in the early part of the century, the Automat made its way into many movies, songs and print advertising. I found a book  by Lorraine B. Diehl & Marianne Hardart about Horn & Hardart, “The Automat; The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece”.

Reading through many quotes about visiting Horn & Hardart, there runs a common theme in the comments of comfort and wonder. It is widely considered to be the first fast food restaurant, paving the way we now eat and live. The first store opened in Philadelphia in 1912 by two men from different backgrounds–Joe Horn and Frank Hardart. They had both fallen in love with the coffee of New Orleans, which was brewed rather than boiled, and when the first restaurant opened the coffee drew immediate praise as the best in town.

With drive, quality standards and their growing popularity more stores opened. Enter the third man, name unknown, who sold them the product that would change history. A Swiss invention produced in Germany known as “waiter-less restaurant.” The salesman had drawings, plans and knowledge of the concept working in Europe. They fell for the machine immediately and ordered one from Germany.

The design of these restaurants is impressive–most of the staff being contained behind the food compartments–which keeps the dining and the busy kitchen separate. The idea was that the staff would keep the windows refreshed with food and the customer would pick what they wanted, drop in their nickel and find a seat. One of the significant features of the Automat is that people could eat how much, or how little, they wanted – creating a dining experience designed for people from every walk of life.

They soon took the concept to New York where the idea took off. In it’s heyday from 1920-1950, it’s estimated that the chain fed 800,000 people a day. Beyond the automatic concept was the design of the spaces. The first New York store had a stained glass window thirty feet wide and two stories high. The food may have cost a nickel, but the spaces were carefully designed and opulent. The famous coffee was served from Italian Dolphin spigots, and the restaurants didn’t feel cheap.

It is hard for me to think that this is the beginning of American fast food, where the focus on the experience of dining has died. Even at the time, some people were critical of the chain–thinking that it would ruin the art of dining. Despite what people thought of the chain, the Automat thrived and made its way into the fabric of the culture.

Hopper named his famous painting “Automat,” showing a woman staring into her cup of coffee alone. If people worried about the style, the food–unlike the fast food of today–was made to exact standards and wanted to resemble the food you would make at home.

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927

Horn & Hardart was an empire, and a star in popular culture. The book puts 1950 as the tipping point of it’s popularity, “In 1950, if you were to ask New Yorkers and Philadelphians to make a list of things they held sacred, close to the top of that list would be Horn & Hardart’s five-cent cup of coffee.”

Despite inflation all around, when they inevitably raised their prices, their sales plummeted.  It was not only that, after the war people were different and there was a mass exit from urban to suburban living. They managed to limp along, but at a cost.  They no longer used real cream or quality ingredients and through modernization the locations got new facades–losing their original deco charms, and the experience of eating in them.

This seems like not only a story of this chain, but a story of this country. The last store to close did not resemble the original concept in any way. We talk in our office all the time about how details matter, and here is a case study of changing the details in such a way that what people loved about the Automat was lost. The popularity of the Automat was not that it was cheap–it held our imagination because it was focused on quality, details & experiences. I think you could make the argument that what drew people may have been the five-cent coffee, but what kept them coming back was the details of design.