All About The Iconic Restaurant: Horn & Hardart


If you were around the 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s, you would know that it was not Burger King, KFC, Hardees, Taco Bell, Wendy, or McDonald’s that people went to for food outside. 

Many other classic restaurants may not exist today or are barely surviving. Welcome to Horn and Hardart – a restaurant with an automat, circa 1950 – being one of them! 

It was a restaurant without waiters, workers behind the counter, or any visible employees. You put your money into a glass-enclosed kiosk, enabling it to rotate a steaming plate of delicious meals for you to carry on to your table. Sounds futuristic, no?

The restaurant chain started in New York and Philadelphia. They were so successful that they had more than 40 locations in New York City alone. There were dozens more across the U.S. It was the time when automats served hundreds of thousands of urban customers per day. 

Here is all about the restaurant Horn and Hardart! 

A Peek into Its Origins

Image of an automat and people.

While many may think that the automats originated in America, their history: is from Berlin in Germany in 1895. With the name of Quisisana—after food-vending machine manufacturing —this high-tech eatery established itself in the northern European cities. Soon, Quisisana licensed its technology to others. Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart were amongst the first Americans to purchase and open Horn and Hardart Automat in Philadelphia in 1902.

In 1924, Horn & Hardart opened retail stores. They sold prepackaged automat favorites. Soon, they adopted the advertising slogan of Less Work for Mother. It was to popularize the idea of taking out food equivalent to home-cooked meals. Their business model was iconic and futuristic.

The Iconic Business Model: Automat & Nickel Coins

Image of how an automaton works at Horn & Hardart.

Like any social trend, the automats took off well in turn-of-the-century New York. The restaurant had already hit an appealing business model. Customers had to exchange dollar bills for nickel coins from female cashiers behind glass booths. They were called the nickel throwers and wore rubber tips on their fingers. 

Image of nickel coins.

The customers then fed their nickel coins to coin-operated slots of the vending machines, turned their knobs, and extracted plates of delicious steamy meals from small glass windows. Each stack of this glass dispenser had a rotatable metal cylinder for the staff behind. They would fill each dispenser with fresh meals every time, and knobs would make customers take it away without seeing anyone on the other side.

From mashed potatoes to cherry pies and meatloaves and beans, Horn and Hardart offered multiple staple items of quality. You could enjoy a large full meal for under $1.00.  

The dining was communal and cafeteria-style. The branches were a valuable corrective for many New York restaurants of the time.

Reasons of Success of Horn & Hardart

Image of a flyer showing waitress service restaurants.

While it is clear that the automats and nickel coins had a role, Horn & Hardart also succeeded because of their policies and quality. They gave their employees a strict protocol for correct cooking and food handling in a leather-bound journal. Horn and Hardart (the founder) also arranged sample tables often. Here, they and the chief executives voted on new menu items.

The restaurant was also the first New York restaurant chain with freshly-brewed coffee on the menu. For a Nickel, you had a cup. 

Employees also had to discard any pots sitting for more than 20 minutes. It allowed a level of quality control that inspired Irving Berlin to compose the song, Let Us Have Another Cup of Coffee. It quickly became the official jingle at Horn & Hardart. The restaurant was clean, healthy, structured, and reliable.

Fading Popularity: The Onset of Decline

Image of the Horn and Hardart automat.

The restaurant chain remained popular in the 1960s. They also opened branches with sit=down waitress service restaurants, cafeterias, and bakery shops.

Automats had interior decorations. The Automat in 14th Street had psychedelic posters. 

But by the early 1970s, automats started fading in popularity. The reason was the rise of fast-food chains like Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. They offered a more identifiable taste with much lighter meals on the go. The payment methods were also straightforward. We also suspect that the fiscal crisis in the 1970s led to an overall decline in outdoor dinings. 

End of the Restaurant Chain

Horn & Hardart gave in to the inevitable fall. They converted most of the New York City locations into Burger King franchises. The last one, on Third Avenue and 42nd Street, went out of business in 1991. 

The Bottomline

Horn & Hardart was a restaurant that had a fair share of its success. It featured a formula for success and was able to operate several successful branches. However, it could not keep up with the rise of competitors like Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hence, it came to an end in 1991.

There are many more restaurants of the past that no longer exist. If you own one too today, make sure you use our guide to dress your restaurant or cafe for success

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