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Philadelphia's Joseph Horn (1861–1941) and German-born, New Orleans-raised Frank Hardart (1850–1918) opened their first restaurant together in Philadelphia on December 22, 1888. The small (11 x 17 foot) lunchroom at 39 South Thirteenth Street had no tables, only a counter with 15 stools. Formerly, the location had housed the print shop of Dunlap & Claypoole, printers to the American Congress and George Washington.
By introducing Philadelphia to New Orleans-style French-drip coffee, which Hardart promoted as their "gilt-edge" brew, they made their tiny luncheonette a local attraction. News of the coffee spread, and the business flourished. They incorporated as the Horn & Hardart Baking Company in 1898.
Horn and Hardart opened their first Automat restaurant in the USA in Philadelphia on June 12, 1902, borrowing the concept of automatic food service from a successful German establishment, Berlin's Quisisana Automat. The first New York Automat opened in Times Square July 2, 1912. Later that week, another opened at Broadway and East 14th Street, near Union Square.
In 1924, Horn & Hardart opened retail stores to sell prepackaged automat favorites. Using the advertising slogan "Less Work for Mother," the company popularized the notion of easily served "take-out" food as an equivalent to "home-cooked" meals.
The Horn & Hardart Automats were particularly popular during the Depression era when their macaroni and cheese, baked beans and creamed spinach were staple offerings. In the 1930s, union conflicts resulted in vandalism, as noted by Christopher Gray in The New York Times:
By the time of Horn's death in 1941, the business had 157 retail shops and restaurants in the Philadelphia and New York areas and served 500,000 patrons a day. During the 1940s and the 1950s, more than 50 New York Horn & Hardart restaurants served 350,000 customers a day.
In 1953, the company split into two independent corporations. The New York company was named the Horn & Hardart Company, while the Philadelphia company was named the Horn & Hardart Baking Company. New York was traded on the American Stock Exchange and Philadelphia was traded on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange.
These cafeterias featured prepared foods behind small glass windows and coin-operated slots, beginning with buns, beans, fish cakes and coffee. These were popular, busy restaurants, where in the late 1950s, for under $1.00, one could enjoy a large, if somewhat plain meal, purchased with nickels usually obtained from the cashier. Each stack of glass-doored dispensers had a metal cylinder that could be rotated by the staff on the other side of the vending wall, hiding the contents while they refilled each dispenser in the stack with a plate of salad, pudding, meat or vegetables. Each dispenser had a slot for one or more nickels, and a knob to rotate the nickels out of view into the internal cash box and to allow the glass door to be raised up and locked in a horizontal position for easy removal of the plate or bowl of food. More expensive items required tokens valued up to 75¢ which were available from the cashier. Some of the rectangular dispensers were heated, some cooled. Eventually, they served lunch and dinner entrees, such as beef stew and Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes. The self-service restaurants operated in the city for nearly a century.
Carolyn Hughes Crowley described the appeal of the Automats:
The restaurants remained popular into the 1960s with automats, sit-down waitress service restaurants, cafeterias, and bakery shops. In the late 1960s, consultants attempted to develop automats with interior decoration relevant to surrounding neighborhoods; thus, the Automat on 14th Street was decorated with psychedelic posters. The eateries began to close with the rise of fast-food restaurants. By the mid-1970s, at some locations, Burger King franchises replaced the automats. Horn & Hardart further expanded its fast food operations in 1981, with its acquisition of the Bojangles' Famous Chicken n' Biscuits restaurants, which it sold to a California investment company in 1990 for $20 million. The last New York Horn & Hardart Automat (on the southeast corner of 42nd Street and Third Avenue) closed in April 1991. Horn & Hardart continued to own a catalog division; it renamed itself Hanover Direct in 1993.
Horn & Hardart opened two 1950s themed Dine-O-Mat restaurants in New York. They closed in 1989 after less than two years in operation. More recently, the Horn & Hardart name was used for a now-defunct chain of coffee shops in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The Horn & Hardart Coffee Co. closed its last coffee shop in 2005. A company of the same name has a website, with a 2013 copyright, offering coffee at places such as the New York Public Library at Bryant Park and the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.
A version of the current automats used in the Netherlands, was located in New York's East Village at 37 St. Mark's Place between Second Avenue and Third Avenue, but has since closed.
In the early 1990s two entrepreneurs bought the Philadelphia company (Horn & Hardart Baking Co.) out of bankruptcy. While they did not open any restaurants, they did reproduce a dozen of the most famous food items, including macaroni and cheese, Harvard beets, tapioca pudding and cucumber salad. The food was packaged fresh, refrigerated, and sold in supermarkets throughout Philadelphia and New Jersey. The food was still available up until 2002, then disappeared from the stores.
Beginning in 1927, Horn & Hardart sponsored a radio program, The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour, a variety show with a cast of children (including some who later as adults became well-known performers). The program was broadcast first on WCAU Radio in Philadelphia, hosted by Stan Lee Broza. It was broadcast on NBC Radio in New York during the 1940s and 1950s. The original New York host was Paul Douglas, succeeded by Ralph Edwards and finally Ed Herlihy.
The television premiere of The Horn & Hardart Children's Hour appeared on WCAU TV in Philadelphia in 1948, succeeded by WNBT(TV) in New York in 1949, telecast on Sunday mornings. Stan Lee Broza hosted in Philadelphia and Ed Herlihy in New York. Frankie Avalon was a frequent performer of the Children's Hour as a child prodigy trumpet player.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has displayed in its cafe an ornate 35-foot Automat section, complete with mirrors, marble and marquetry, from Philadelphia’s 1902 Horn & Hardart. In November 2002, the Museum of the City of New York had a special Automat centennial exhibition featuring photographs, artifacts, original furniture, china and vending machine panels.
The New York Public Library opened an exhibition on June 22, 2012, titled "Lunch Hour NYC". The exhibition "looks back at more than a century of New York lunches, when the city's early power brokers invented the 'power lunch'...... and visitors with guidebooks thronged Times Square to eat lunch at the Automat." Among many educational and entertaining items is a fully restored wall of Automat windows. The exhibit was scheduled to run until February 17, 2013.