The Automat in the Postwar Era: Decline of a Beloved New York Institution

Carolyn Scott, Jessica Harwood, and Jeff Edelstein

In From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, runaways Claudia and Jamie, their pockets full of change, eat several meals at a nearby Automat. Patrons of the Automats express fond, nostalgic memories when recalling their visits to these restaurants. People from all walks of life dined there, sliding nickels into the shiny Automat machines to pull out a piece of pie or purchase a cup of coffee from the iconic dolphin-shaped dispenser. The first Automat machine was shipped from Germany to Philadelphia, with the original restaurant opening there in 1902; New York followed ten years later.

The Automat represented modern notions of convenience, cleanliness, and standardized food quality. These high standards were maintained by strict recipe guidelines and food tastings, which Mr. Horn conducted along with other executives of the company. The coffee and orange juice were changed every two hours, and only fresh rather than frozen eggs were used. Despite being fried in lard, even their hamburger steak in sauce compares favorably in some nutritional categories to modern McDonald’s hamburgers.

The most prosperous era for the Automat was the 1930s and 1940s. At the height of its success, there were 46 locations in Manhattan. They served dishes such as creamed spinach, baked beans, tapioca pudding, fish cakes, macaroni and cheese, clam chowder, and chicken a la king. Prices were reasonable: a chicken pot pie cost 35 cents in 1935; in 1955 it was 60 cents. Converted into 2012 dollars, these prices would be equivalent to $5.91 and $5.18, respectively. That is, the relative price of this item had decreased, a result of new pressures the company was attempting to respond to.

Times had begun to change for the Horn & Hardart company. During the early 1950s, as customer counts diminished, sales of coffee, always an Automat hallmark, also declined. The company experimented with lowering the price of coffee from 10 cents to 5 cents to entice more customers into the restaurants, assuming that they would buy additional foods to make up for sagging sales. In order to absorb the $219,000 monthly revenue loss, however, sales volume needed to increase by 25%.

By the 1960s, a more affluent, younger consumer base viewed the Automat as out of date in both its food offerings and lack of table service. Automats started to close; by 1965 only 35 Manhattan restaurants remained, with most concentrated in Midtown. The location that Claudia and Jamie are most likely to have visited was at 163 East 86th Street, near Lexington Avenue, just a few blocks from the museum.

Horn & Hardart struggled with its restaurant division. Here we see data from six locations. All experienced a decline in sales during the decade of the 60s; projections for the 1970s anticipated continued declines. Food costs were dropping as the company tried to save money, partly by lowering quality, but total costs, including labor and overhead, were nevertheless increasing.

The heyday of the Automat clearly had passed. Horn & Hardart closed even more locations, converting others into fast-food franchises, especially Burger King, Arby’s, and Bojangles Chicken. The last Automat, at Third Avenue and 42nd Street, closed its doors on April 10, 1991.

Bibliography and credits
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