Automatic Return

Automatic Return 

Rediscovering the Automat on its 100th birthday. 

By Tess Taylor

Metropolis Magazine, April 2002

In 1902 Philadelphia entrepreneurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart took a cue from the aesthetics of the industrial revolution and designed a restaurant based on the assembly line. Their concept, which they dubbed the Automat, was dazzlingly simple: a waiterless restaurant where urban dwellers could get a good hot meal, cheap. 

At its height the Automat was the nation's largest restaurant chain and served more that 800,000 people daily at locations in New York and Philadelphia. The nickel-and-glass window displays, offering 87 menu items, held all the possibilities of a miniature city. But when cities fell on hard times, do so did the Automat. The restaurants began to decline in the 1960s, and the last one closed its doors in 1991. The fabulous food-purveying contraption, it turned out, was more a fantasy of automation that its reality. Behind the curtain wall, men and women were hard at work restocking the stainless-steel drum, and the cost-effectiveness of the operation was eventually superseded by that of fast food. 

But in the year of its 100th birthday, the great urban gadget might be on the verge of a small renaissance. Recently urban historian and salvage man Stephen Stollman found a hundred of the nifty contraptions awaiting demolition in a Brooklyn warehouse and bought them before scrap-metal dealers could sell them for parts. "When I found them, I just fell in love," Stollman says. "The more I thought about them, the more I realized what a good mission they had. They offered good design and good food — for everyone." The machines were constructed of such quality materials as solid nickel, porcelain, and Monel, an early form of stainless steel. The restaurant interiors sported Beaux Arts and Streamline Modern detailing. "It was high-quality nurture for the common man," Stollman says. 

Stollman is lovingly restoring all the knobs, gears, and plaques of his found machines and hoping to resell them for $4,000 (or 80,000 nickels) at Old Wood Bars, his Soho warehouse. He may have some takers. The New York Historical Society plans to install a few in its new Automat-inspired cafeteria designed by Beyer Blinder Belle. Stollman is proposing to use some as part of revamped eateries at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in Queens. Meanwhile Lorraine Diehl and Marianne Hardart (a descendant of Automat cofounder Hardart) will publish a book about the Automat in November. "There was something inspiring but also really fun about it," Diehl says. "I mention it, and people say, 'Oh, I used to go there with my dad,' or, 'I really loved the apple pie.' People still miss it."