What restaurants did you patronize for a quick breakfast, lunch, or dinner during the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s? If you were around, at that time, you know that it was not a McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hardees, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Arby’s or Jack in the Box. But, it may have been a White Tower or White Castle; they were around when I was in elementary school and go back as far as 1920.
Some of you recall purchasing meals at a place that had the following theme, “Less Work for Mother.” Those of you that relate to this slogan, will immediately recall purchasing foods by placing a coin in the slot and removing the food found behind a small glass window. Now, it should not take more hints for you to recognize that I am referring to that popular coin-operated cafeteria, Horn & Hardart (H&H). This establishment was frequented by many of us, back in the day.
If you were not around, back then, or did not frequent or have knowledge of this coin-operated cafeteria, let me bring you up to snuff with regard to its founding and operation. Horn & Hardart, that many of us simply called, Hungry Harry’s, for reasons I cannot determine, was best described as a cafeteria. It had many locations across the city. Its first location was opened by Joseph V. Horn and Frank Hardart in Philadelphia, on Dec. 22, 1888, at 39 South 13th Street, not far from The Philadelphia Tribune. There were no tables, only a counter and stools. Horn and Hardart’s first Automat was established in Philadelphia in 1902; some argue this was the beginning of the fast food era. As it became established and expanded to other locations in Philadelphia, New York and other cities, Horn & Hardart became known and famous for foods purchased from dispensers located behind glass doors.
Back then, workers did not have an hour for lunch, as is typically the case today. Thus, with a limited amount of time for lunch, these automats were seen as economical and efficient since most dishes were priced at five or 10 cents with no waiters to tip. An Oct. 15, 1941 Washington Post article, regarding the death of Joseph Horn, reported that at the time of his death, there were 157 Horn & Hardart establishments in the Philadelphia and New York areas that served 500,000 patrons a day. Patronizing an H & H required obtaining nickels from cashiers located in glass booths to operate the dispensers. Other than remembering these ladies with rubber tips on their fingers, do you recall the name given these ladies? Now, do not say, “Oh yeah,” when I indicate that they were called, “nickel throwers.”
Once you obtained nickels from these ladies, it was possible to purchase a wide-variety of items — soup, salad, sandwiches, mashed potatoes, steak — both hot and cold foods. I have been told that a decent and enjoyable full meal could be purchased for a reasonable price in the late 50s. I can recall inserting coins so that the glass doors could be raised to obtain the foods of my choice. I imagine you can recall watching workers rotate the dispensers to refill them. While I cannot personally remember the quality of the food, I spoke with several people who indicated that you could get a delicious meal for the money. Those that frequented Horn & Hardart, agree that for one dollar, a large and enjoyable meal could be purchased, back in the day.
The cleanliness and décor were two aspects of Horn & Hardart heard most from those who frequented this establishment. While I would not go this far, one person described their facilities as elegant. An August 2001 article, in the Smithsonian Magazine, authored by Carolyn Hughes Crowley, “Meet Me at the Automat,” described the appeal of these restaurants. She described the in this way: “Huge rectangular halls filled with shiny, lacquered tables, women with rubber tips on their fingers — ‘nickel throwers,’ as they became known — in glass booths gave customers the five-cent pieces required to operate the food machines in exchange for larger coins and paper money.” Crowley also pointed out that “customers scooped up their nickels, then slipped them into slots in the coin slots and turn the chrome-plated knobs with their porcelain centers. In a few seconds the compartment next to the slot revolved into place to present the desired cold food to the customer through a small glass door that opened and closed.”
If you observe pictures of the food machine operation, you would get the feeling that you were in the world’s biggest vending machine. It was like going into a post office where mail is picked up by those with post office boxes except there were foods behind each glass door. Hundreds of these glass window doors lined the walls! I can recall peeping behind the compartments and seeing workers, dressed in white, replenishing the trays. While some have vivid memories of how well the facilities were kept, the foods also received high marks.
It is interesting that the food received praise. Yet, it remains hard to get much praise for the quality of foods in “cafeteria style” restaurants today. Reports posted on the internet by those patronizing Horn & Hardart praised its foods, particularly for the price. A menu from 1940 from the New York Public Library, indicated that one could get a choice of juice, fruit cup or cereal, as well as eggs prepared any style or griddle cakes or eggs with bacon and home fried potatoes and toast, for 25 cents. A complete breakfast special could be purchased for fifteen cents. All reports indicated that this was an outstanding breakfast. I cannot recall where I saw it, but some time ago, the actor Gregory Peck claimed that Horn & Hardart had the best scrambled eggs in the world. I have spoken with people, who still have fond memories of items they ate at Horn & Hardart. It appears that mashed potatoes was a big favorite. Several people indicated that if they had mashed potatoes they had to have meat loaf, another Horn & Hardart favorite, for their meal to be complete.
Was meat loaf one of your favorites? What about creamed spinach, Salisbury steak and roast chicken. Other internet postings by those that frequented Horn & Hardart identified macaroni and cheese, baked beans, Navy Bean soup and creamed spinach as staple offerings. I do not recall eating baked beans but from things I have read and discussions with others, baked beans were a popular item.
This appears to have remained a desired item as the preparation of this dish appears in an article by Glenn Collins, posted on the internet on Dec. 17, 2012, titled “The Automat May Be Long Gone, But Its Recipes Are in Demand.” This article provides a complete recipe for the preparation of Horn & Hardart’s Baked Beans. Horn & Hardart’s coffee was another favorite and popular item. In fact, after the cafeterias closed, its soup and coffee were packaged and continues to be sold to this day. While I can understand customers raving about home-style biscuits, I have never heard anyone praising something as basic as an egg salad sandwich. Yet, I found many people making favorable comments about this sandwich when purchased at Horn & Hardart. Of all the items they sold, Lemon Meringue Pie was my absolute favorite. In fact, I recall going to Horn & Hardart and buying nothing but Lemon Meringue Pie. Deserts must have been favorites as hot apple pie, cinnamon buns and blueberry pie were all viewed in internet postings as “magical,” just like our mother’s home baked items, back in the day.
The Horn & Hardart establishment was a popular place for both adults and young people to work. I cannot imagine that no one reading this column did not work at a Horn & Hardart cafeteria. The nearest Horn & Hardart to my home was on the corner of 52nd and Market streets. Several of my friends worked there as busboys. They bussed the tables, washed the dishes and stacked them in the designated locations. The dishes were then ready to receive foods for placement in the dispensers. While the work was tedious and boring, there were some positive aspects of being a busboy or working in other positions. Right in the neighborhood, one could hold an after-school or weekend job to earn a few dollars to purchase clothing, in particular, and other personal items. A significant benefit of Horn and Hardart, as a busboy or any other job, was the opportunity to eat whenever one desired. An added benefit was the quality of the food. According to my friends who worked there, the food was great. It should be pointed out that the quality of the food may have been directly related to all foods being cooked or baked on the premises. While employment opportunities were an advantage of having a Horn & Hardart in my neighborhood, it was also a great place for us to “hang out” after dismissal from West Philadelphia High School, back in the day.
Horn & Hardart, as we knew this cafeteria in its heyday, started to decline in the ‘60s and survived with different business models for several decades — automats, cafeterias, bakeries and day old shops. The early concept of Horn and Hardart disappeared in the early ‘90s although there were several private efforts to resurrect them in recent years. Make a note of this: It is a distinct possibility that similar facilities could reappear in the future. Just look around at the KIOSKS appearing everywhere. Already we see vending machines replacing workers — machines replacing workers, automation putting lots of people out of work. I would bet that somewhere, someplace, there are innovative business minds exploring the rebirth of Horn & Hardart or vending type restaurants that would become popular places to eat as was the case, back in the day.