How Depression-Era Automats Set the Standard for Consistency

Hardart’s Automat was a beacon of light during the Depression—and for consistency-obsessed restaurateurs who followed

 

By Karen Weisberg 

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aked beans, pumpkin pie, huckleberry pie, oatmeal cookies, cup custard, beef and noodles with burgundy sauce, hearty stews, fish cakes, “velvety” baked hams, macaroni and cheese, “succulent” Salisbury steaks, creamed spinach, the “fluffiest” mashed potatoes… “these are a few of their favorite things”… ‘cause for sure, every man, woman and child had a favorite. One can almost taste the memories of those lucky enough — or even those down on their luck — to have frequented one of the 84 Horn & Hardart Automats (automatic cafeterias with steam tables and waitstaff) that operated in the U.S. from July 1901 through April 1991. During the 1920s to the late 1950s, a cup of “gilt-edge” coffee there (dispensed through an elegant dolphin spout) was $.05; a slice of pie was $.10. A full meal cost less than $.50 in the 1920s and ‘30s.

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Partners Frank Hardart in New York — he of the smooth, iconic French drip coffee that sold for a nickel for 38 years — and Joe Horn, a man whose gusto for substantial meals and Philadelphia were equally legendary, together created a restaurant chain that was successful and beloved beyond the sum of its New York and Philly parts.

Just before Christmas in 1888, the first Horn & Hardart Baking Company Lunch Room opened in Philadelphia. This was not an automat boasting a wall of gleaming glass door cubbies with slices of pie or sandwiches on view to be purchased for nickels inserted into slots. No, this fledgling enterprise consisted of one long counter and 15 stools. Frank Hardart manned the kitchen and brewed his coffee while Joe Horn served and was earnestly attentive to each customer.

Upstairs/Downstairs

Eventually, four “automatic” units were imported from Germany. According to Marianne Hardart, “The food inside the window was a display; a cook in the basement prepared the order, then cranked it up to the dining room on a dumbwaiter.” When it arrived, the guest had to insert a second coin to get the dish. “Cold food was already prepared but still had to be sent up from the basement.” In this way, “food appeared to be untouched by human hands and, with the discovery of bacteria in the 1880s, to be able to help yourself was a popular advertising ploy in the 1900s,” contends Alec Tristin Schuldiner, Ph.D, in his 2001 dissertation, “Trapped Behind the Automat: Technological Systems and The American Restaurant, 1902-1991.”

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Tweaking the tech

Meanwhile, H&H’s chief engineer, John Fritsche, was laser-focused on “automatic vending.” He patented some 30 vending machines of various configurations, as Schuldiner details.

“In 1906, Fritsche filed for a patent on a ‘vending machine’ related to but distinctively different than the imported automats; though a dumbwaiter system, Fritsche’s automat was specifically designed to vend pre-made servings via an unending chain of cells. His device could be kept chilled sufficiently to hold dishes of ice cream or custard … presenting a new cell when the available one was emptied.” With updates and tweaks made in 1911 — the year H&H expanded to NYC — this became the technology the company used for the following 80 years. It also served as a “solution” to the problem of labor. For accessing cold food, Fritsche’s design was like magic: “Make a selection, deposit a nickel, turn the knob and the door sprang open,” Marianne Hardart points out.

Consistency rules

Whether “chefs” played a substantial role at H&H in setting food prep standards as well as in the creation of standardized recipes remains debatable. What is certain is that Joe Horn was a stickler for setting and adhering to the highest quality standards regarding fresh meat, fish, vegetables, etc., purchased seasonally and often locally, for the commissaries. Frank Hardart’s great-granddaughter Marianne Hardart points to Horn’s introduction of the Sample Table, one in each of the two commissaries, as evidence he was determined to ensure that food was consistently produced up to standard.

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Once the menu item was prepared, it might be checked out at the Sample Table so changes could be made quickly. Every morning, company VIPs sampled random items. “One morning, a thousand gallons of soup were rejected for lacking a single ingredient,” Marianne Hardart notes in “The Automat, The History, Recipes and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece,” co-authored with Lorraine B. Diehl.

But the sine qua non was surely the Managers’ Instruction Book (MIB). The owners passionately cared that each and every one of the 400 menu items prepared twice daily in their commissaries met the exacting standards set out in the 200-plus page manual. Examples of entries (along with the reason that prompted the edict) include:

• Coffee: First draw and throw away about 2-oz. because coffee lying in the faucet absorbs a metallic flavor.

• Cakes: Display in rush periods; make up no more than six orders at a time to avoid stale product.

• Do not slice bananas in advance as they discolor rapidly.

During the Great Depression and for many years thereafter, the affordability of automat fare was a huge draw. “Joe Horn and Frank Hardart understood the importance of food that lingered in the memory while not emptying the wallets of the working people to whom the Automat catered,” Marianne Hardart says.

Truly, the commissaries were built to keep costs down, but over the years, they “allowed high standards to be maintained in 165 locations [including cafeterias, automats and retail shops in NYC and Philly],” writes Valerie Wingfield of the New York Public Library in her 2010 article, Before the Big Mac: Horn & Hardart Automats.

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Hail to the Chef

In 1933, a bona fide executive chef was brought on board. Francis Bourdon had trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and was previously employed at both The Sherry-Netherland and at The Plaza Hotel. His fellow chefs in the city are said to have teased him as being “L’Escoffier des Automats.”

“Bourdon advertised his skill to patrons via fanciful window displays of elaborate pastries and other feats of the chef’s art,” notes Lisa Hurwitz in her first feature documentary, “The Automat,” slated for completion in fall 2019. Meanwhile Shuldiner quotes Harvey Levenstein’s 1988 book Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet: “Horn & Hardart’s ability to hire such a highly trained chef was undoubtedly in part thanks to the fact that the restaurants of such upper class institutions … were greatly diminished during the Prohibition Years [1920-1933], a setback from which they never recovered. While Bourdon was likely glad to have the job, he could not have given his skills free reign; though H&H is reputed to have offered particularly tasty food, it could not have strayed too far from the cafeteria norm.”



Photo credit: The Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts (Robert F. Byrnes collection), The New York Public Library

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