As a very young lad, I was invited (read required) to accompany my dowager aunt on her weekly shopping pilgrimages to New York City, riding the No. 86 bus across the George Washington bridge, then enduring the noisy subway ride into the “downtown” area. As a “New Jersey country-kid” I did not look forward to these events; I was always uncomfortable when on the other side of the Hudson River, and bored stiff by long hours spent in such department stores as R.H. Macy’s, Gimbals, Altman’s and McCreary’s. My Aunt Molly was a product of a once well-to-do family living in Depression times, and her well-intentioned frugality was a source of extended-family humor. Verging on parsimony, her shopping strategy seemed to require frequent questioning of product pricing with vendors of all kinds; to my embarrassment and even horror. If there was one thing I actually enjoyed in these big-city ventures though, it was “lunch time”.
Growing up in first the depression era and then the World War II rationing years, “eating out” was both an infrequent and penurious experience. I remember visiting a “real” restaurant only once in all those years and not fondly,(the tuxedo-clad host – to my red-faced embarrassment - required me to put on a child’s generic necktie, which he was good enough to provide from a back room!).
While most often our “city” lunch consisted of a toasted club sandwich served at the fountain counter of a F.W. Woolworth store, my interest always perked up when told that we might eat at a Horn & Hardart “Automat”, one of which could be found in each of several downtown locations. To a New Jersey kid, the Automat, with its long wall of enticing views of pies, cakes and fancy deserts was a dose of visual magic. All you had to do was insert nickels in the appropriate slot and voila, the glass door opened and you could claim the object of your choice to carry back to your table. No waitress. No complicated menu. No printed receipt. No tips. Main entrees usually featured such simple and satisfying comfort foods as macaroni-and-cheese, baked beans, chicken pot pie, creamed spinach (not my first choice as I recall), and cole slaw. With a minimum of prudence, a hungry adult could have a filling meal for less than one dollar (my scrupulously nickel-conscious aunt usually managed to feed us both by “sharing”). All a patron needed was a handful of nickels, purchased if needed, from the cashier conveniently located just inside the front door. Of course what the diners never got to see was the small army of cooks and servers hidden behind the magic windows, preparing and instantly replacing each food item as its’ attractively-labeled serving niche was emptied from the customer side.
The genius behind the whole idea was the partnership of Joseph Horn from Philadelphia and Frank Hardart of New Orleans, pioneers in the whole concept of cafeteria dining and production-line food preparation. During the heyday of the Philadelphia and New York City operations, more than 500,000 Automat patrons were being served each day.
In its’ prime time, the lowly nickel could buy a ride on a bus or subway, a phone call, a 12 ounce bottle of Pepsi or Nehi, a cup of coffee, a double-feature movie ticket, or . . . a pretty-darn good piece of cherry pie at a Horn & Hardart Automat.
Surrounded by art-deco chrome and gilding, a Horn & Hardart vending wall featured individually cooled or heated compartments accessed by nickels inserted in coin slots.