Thursday, February 28, 2013

It's AUTOMAT-ic

Whatever happened to the automat?  A major advance in the movement towards convenient, casual, and cost-conscious dining, the automat was the unprecedented, and brilliant, invention of Horn & Hardart.  Yes, before McDonald's, before KFC, before Taco Bell, the biggest names in "fast food" were Joseph Horn & Frank Hardart.

Proprietors of dinettes in the late 1800's, Horn & Hardart developed a novel style of food service that had never been seen before.  In 1902, the first Horn & Hardart Automat opened its doors to the hungry residents of Philadelphia, PA.


Reduced to its essence, the automat was a living vending machine - a wall of louvered doors behind which sat perfectly portioned roast beef, mixed vegetables, fruit salad, or bread pudding to be had for mere nickels.  On the other side of the wall was a fully-functioning kitchen and a staff of food service specialists placing and replacing food in every window.  I don't know about you, but the novelty of a coin-operated food dispenser would not have been lost on Mr. Tiny; I would have been the first in line!

Can you follow directions?


Patrons of an automat would make a brief stop at the cashier to exchange their folding money for coins; with a handful of nickels, an empty stomach, and a dream, the possibilities would have seemed endless!

Wrong or right, I most closely associate automats with the 1930's, because warm, hearty food bought for mere change seems like a practical option during a time when many city dwellers, reduced in means by "The Crash," would have found even a nickel a pretty dear price to pay for a meal.  

By the the early 1940's, Horn & Hardart
 operated over 150 automats.
(Source)

Basically everything I know was learned by watching classic movies.  Does that leave me with a sub-public school level, Hollywood-revisionist's understanding of history?  I guess so.  Does that leave me constantly shouting, "Chuck Heston" when the correct answer to the Sunday School question is "Moses?"  Yea, it doth.  Does that leave me breaking into musical numbers every time it rains in California?  Sue me.  

My favorite classic movies that feature the function and unique atmosphere of American automats are Easy Living and That Touch of Mink.   Could you hope for two better heroines - Jean Arthur and Doris Day - I ask you?!!!  If you've never seen one or both of these movies, do yourself a huge favor and rectify the situation.

Easy Living (1937)
with Jean Arthur and Ray Milland

That Touch of Mink (1962) 
with Doris Day, Cary Grant, Audrey Meadows, and Gig Young


A fixture of America's largest cities in the first half of the 20th Century, automats began a steady decline in the 1960's, owing to post-war suburban sprawl, increased mobility of the average citizen, and the rise of America's most infamous and long-lasting culinary tradition - fast food.  I guess the shenanigans shown in both films (a pessimistic, albeit realistic, portrayal of an automat's deficiencies) probably did nothing to aid in perpetuating this particular dining innovation.

In my mind, the automat should still be a viable source for feeding hungry folks of the 21st Century.  It goes without saying that modern food could not be had for pocket change, but card swipers would be a practical alternative.  Although as I said, my mind is addled by the unholy amount of cinema I have viewed and the facts show that my theory is baseless and totally without merit.

The end of an era
(Source)

Horn & Hardart tried unsuccessfully to revive the medium in the 1980's.  As recently as 2006, a short-lived revival was underway in New York City, subsequently hammering the last nail into the automat coffin.

Bamn Automat, NYC (2006-2009)
(Source)
The inherent problem with Dutch import, Bamn Automat, was that it strayed from the original Horn & Hardart formula with menu offerings that were subpar versions of food that could be had at any number of familiar, adjacent fast food restaurants.  The beauty of Bamn's forebears was that the menu consisted of hearty, homestyle cooking.  Moreover, the originals had gleaming dining rooms with clean tables attended by uniformed employees.  The differences are glaringly obvious, making this just another edition of "Why can't things be like they used to be?"

Fortunately, in our neck of the woods we have a Great Depression survivor/holdover in the form of Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria (see our "Chow Time" post here).  It is currently under renovation in the hands of new ownership, but we are promised a revived and restored Clifton's to be opened this year; if we can't have an automat, we'll happily survive on cafeteria fare.  Where else can you get a bowl of shimmering, shimmying, confetti Jell-O? 

"Automatic" - The Pointer Sisters
Because "The Neutron Dance wouldn't make any sense.


Cheers!

Mr. Tiny

22 comments:

  1. I've always wanted to try an Automat, but alas was born too late as well. Unfortunately in my part of the world our cafeteria's are also on the way out. My favorite as a kid was actually a Luby's in San Antonio. It was like going into a retro cave. Dark wood paneling, burgundy carpeting with gold accents. Faux burgundy leather on the chairs and booths. It also had those beautiful wall sconces. There was also another Luby's at the mall that had a 60's vibe. They had huge 15 ft windows on one side with pale turquoise drapes. Both have gone the way of the dinosaurs. I still miss them. Spent many a times as a child eating at them.

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    1. Are you thinking of Luby's or Earl Abel's--which was the most awesome old retro-cave-style restaurant ever? Sadly, both Earl Abel's and the mall Luby's are gone since my college days in San Antonio.

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    2. Yeah, we just have the one hold out in Clifton's cafeteria. Luby's and Earl Abel's sound pretty great; I want to eat in a cave!!! It seems to me that we should have reached the point in our society when these great places aren't just "old" or "kitschy" or "dated," they are downright historical and need to be protected. One of the tiki restaurants that we have covered her on our blog, Bahooka, is closing in a week; it is a wonder/shame that is does not have historical protection! The lesson is, enjoy these places while we still can!

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    3. Lauren-It was a Luby's on SW Military. It closed in the 80s I think. I loved Earl Abel's! Used to go when I was a student at IWC/UIW. Definitely a place Mr Tiny would have loved. Another great place that was torn down :(

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  2. These should definitely make a comeback. There is a rotating sushi bar near my house where the food goes around on a conveyer belt and you pull off what you want...that is about as close as I've been to an automat!

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    1. Except for the sushi (I am a wimp when it comes to "grown up" food), I would love a stationary cafeteria where the food came to me!!! It sound fun!

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  3. This is such a curious concept! I wonder how well the food kept in those little boxes, if they stayed hot, and how long they were left in there?! I don't think we ever had these in the UK, but it sounds like something that would probably exist in Japan today!

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    1. I never thought of that...but face to face with the window, it would definitely cross my mind. "Is this fresh?" In the movies it never seemed like an issue because everything was being sold and replaced so quickly. Botulism isn't worth the savings - I pay an extra nickel for something safe!

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  4. Man, I was talking about the automat LAST NIGHT, telling Matthew about how Patti Smith met Allen Ginsberg in one in the 70's when she was down-and-out, pre-fame, in NYC-- he mistook her, in her shirt collar and tie, for a young man and bought her a sandwich in an effort to pick her up! They became friends in spite of the mix up.

    I just love the "automated" part of it-- you know how cafeteria places, like Picadilly or Loobys or any of those old folks eating establishments, always smell weird, and it's strange to go in and watch someone slop a portion of lasagna on a plate in front of you from a HUGE economy sized pan of the stuff? This would give you the home-food without the "Ugh, is THAT what the whole pan looks like?" sense of the cafeteria. I wish they would bring them back, but like you said, only if they could do it "right"! No gimmicks, just like it was in ye olden days!

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    1. Hahahaha!!!! That is a great story. Man or woman...nobody should be had for the price of an automat sandwich!!!

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  5. I remember automats in NYC as a kid. Part of the problem was that prices rose, as you mention. It takes a LOT more nickles (and time) to pay for a $6.95 roast beef sandwich than a 10 cent cup of coffee! Plus it was relatively labor-intensive, keeping all those windows stocked. The food WAS good, as I recall -- nothing like the fast food one finds today. Thanks for the memories!

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    1. Try keeping your pants from falling down with a pocket full of 139 nickels ($6.95) YIKES!!!! I shouldn't be so naive as to believe everything I see in the movies but the food always did look pretty good. I am glad to hear that the automats were providing solid, tasty fare!

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  6. Clifton's looks amazing! Hope the new owners do a good job with the renovations. I am loving starting my Friday morning off at work with some Pointer Sisters! Thank you! ;-)

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    1. Hopefully it will be open for your ext LA adventure; if it is, Clifton's is a definite item on the "Must See" list! I'm glad you were groovin' to The Pointer Sisters!

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  7. "A Kiss on the hand may be quite, continental. But diamonds are a girls best friend. A Kiss on the hand may be quite sentimental, but it wont pay the rental on your humble flat, or help you at the AUTOMAT!" - Marilyn Monroe (Gentelmen Prefer Blondes) :D

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    1. Why didn't I think of that?!!! Good call!

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  8. One of the Carole King album covers has cute sketches, including freckle-faced Carole, and a Horn & Hardhart storefront.
    In a radio skit, Fred Allen gave his occupation as "lettuce-bender in an automat"-- folding the lettuce back onto the sandwiches so they fit in the little compartments.

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    1. As a regular panelist on "What's My Line?", Fred Allen should have switched roles and been the guest, I'll bet even Arlene Francis wouldn't have guessed "lettuce bender in an automat."

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  9. Very cool post - didn't know about the Automat. In Chicago, they now have 24-hour gourmet cupcake vending machines...kind of automat-like.

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    1. We have a cupcake ATM thing in LA too. I've never indulged but I like the novelty of it!

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  10. just randomly saw this while doing some google searching and just wanted to say thanks for writing about BAMN. i'm the original owner that tried to bring back the automat with the hot pink but oh well...it was fun while it lasted :)

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  11. Seeing a news story about the cupcake atm got me to do a search, "whatever happened to the Automat?" This blog came up, thank you for the article. I first saw one when I visited my relatives in the 70's and as a 14 year old at the time, I thought it was cool. As cool as when my mom wood take up shopping in downtown L.A in the 70's and lunch at Clifton's when we children was a special outing for us. As an adult, I lived in the Long Beach area and would go to the Clifton's that was in the Lakewood Mall for a time. The place was always filled with silver haired folks, but their pork chop and potatoes au gratin was fabulous! I can hardly wait for Clifton's to re-open. Great article.

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