The Automat

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

News Anchor:
In the shadow of Silicon Valley, San Francisco is home to a futuristic eatery with a virtual cashier putting change on the menu.

Roman Mars:
There was a new restaurant that opened a few years back in downtown San Francisco, it was called Eatsa.

Eatsa Representative:
Eatsa, a high tech new restaurant where you order on iPads and get your quinoa bowls out of a cubby.

Roman Mars:
And instead of placing an order with a waiter, or someone behind the counter, you punch in your order on a screen.

Eatsa Customer:
It’s terrific for those of us who are antisocial. You don’t have to actually talk to a person, just swipe your… Where do you swipe your card?

Roman Mars:
And then, a few minutes later, you would walk to a wall of clear glass cubbies.

Eatsa Representative:
Then they’ll go dark for just a second, so you don’t see the actual food being placed in the cubby.

Roman Mars:
And then, when the food was placed, the cubby would glow with your name. You’d tap the glass twice, and you could open the cubby, and your food order was in there waiting for you.

Eatsa Representative:
You tap it, you get your food, and you leave.

Eatsa Representative:
The fact that you can just order on the iPad, pick it out of the cubby, and go back to your desk, means it’s really about the most productive way you can get lunch.

Roman Mars:
You never had to interact with a single person if you didn’t want to. You didn’t have to tip. It was fast. You could hop in, grab a custom made quinoa bowl, and then go back to work without even pausing your podcast.

Avery Trufelman:
And I hated it so much.

Roman Mars:
Producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
As soon as I heard about Eatsa, I was like, okay, great, just what we need. To be even more removed from our food, not only where it comes from, but also the person who hands it to you, because it’s not like it’s a completely robot restaurant. There are still people back there, behind the cubbies, slicing your avocados. They’re just conveniently placed out of sight so that you don’t have to say thank you. Like… argh!

Roman Mars:
But you never actually tried it.

Avery Trufelman:
Okay, no. I never went there. So, take it with a big, fat pinch of salt. And also, know that I hated it because it was very fun to hate. It was like juicers that connect to your phone with Bluetooth, you know? Just, like, stuff that is so completely lampoon-ably San Francisco.

Avery Trufelman:
And so, I did what I always do when I’m upset about a stupid thing, I tweet about it. And instead of getting in a fight, a number of people on Twitter pointed out that this restaurant is not a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Roman Mars:
Something very similar existed at the turn of the century, over 100 years ago, and it was not a San Francisco thing. It was very New York.

Lorraine Diehl:
I grew up in the city, and the city that I grew up in, and the city I’m living in now, ain’t never met each other.

Avery Trufelman:
This is one of the New Yorkiest people I have ever met, Lorraine Diehl.

Lorraine Diehl:
Well, I write about New York history, so I’m always fishing around for something that I want to write about.

Lorraine Diehl:
My grandmother lived on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. I used to meet her under the clock of the Franklin Savings Bank on Saturday afternoons. We would go to Horn & Hardart.

Avery Trufelman:
Ask anyone who was a kid in New York in the ’50s or ’60s, they went to Horn & Hardart. It was a popular restaurant chain that was, in many ways, the Eatsa of the 20th Century. It had locations all over New York City and Philadelphia, and it had very solid standard fare. We’re talking literal meat and potatoes.

Avery Trufelman:
What was your favorite dish?

Lorraine Diehl:
Oh, it was salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.

Avery Trufelman:
And when Lorraine decided that she wanted to write about Horn & Hardart, she got connected with Marianne.

Marianne Hardart:
People don’t always connect my last name with Horn & Hardart, but when they do, immediately stories start to come.

Avery Trufelman:
Marrianne Hardart is the great-granddaughter of Horn & Hardart co-founder, Frank Hardart. Together, Marianne Hardart and Lorraine Diehl teamed up to write the definitive history of this restaurant chain. Turns out these two live near each other on the Upper East Side, and they get along like a house on fire.

Avery Trufelman:
You know.

Lorraine Diehl:
We didn’t step on each other’s toes.

Marianne Hardart:
At all.

Lorraine Diehl:
At all.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah.

Lorraine Diehl:
No.

Roman Mars:
But Horn & Hardart restaurants also went by another name, a much more famous name, the automat.

Avery Trufelman:
So, what’s the automat?

Marianne Hardart:
So, it was the first time that you could go up to a wall, put money in, and get food, hot or cold, fresh prepared.

Avery Trufelman:
Inside a Horn & Hardart automat it looked like a glamorous, ornate cafeteria, but instead of a human handing you hot food over a steaming counter, you’d push your tray up to a wall of little glass cubbies, each housing a fresh, hot portion of food on a small plate. Maybe it would be a side of peas, maybe a turkey sandwich, or a slice of pie. You’d put in some nickels, and then the door to that cubby would unlock, and you could just take the plate that was inside. That food was yours.

Marianne Hardart:
This place where you could put money in a slot and pick your own food. So for children, you know, the parents would give them some money, they would run up to the windows, they could pick what they wanted, they could put the nickel in and get their own food.

Roman Mars:
It was really cheap.

Archive Tape:
By the way, I hear the beefsteak pie is a magnificent six nickels.

Roman Mars:
And it was pretty good.

Archive Tape:
Don’t be a sucker, sister. That beef pie is a wow.

Avery Trufelman:
You see automats in a ton of movies, ranging from silent films like the Early Bird in 1925 to Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan in 1990.

Movie Clip:
I think I’ll have a cake, oh, two nickels.

Movie Clip:
Yeah, yeah, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait, wait, wait.

Avery Trufelman:
Seeing a character in an automat tells you they’re a certain kind of American. One who wants to go out to eat, but doesn’t have the budget.

Movie Clip:
But my dear, she has no background.

Avery Trufelman:
Like in this short from 1932.

Movie Clip:
One would hardly want to be seen dining out with her.

Avery Trufelman:
It opens with a group of people in fancy hats, dining like royals.

Movie Clip:
I’d like another cup of coffee.

Avery Trufelman:
But then the camera zooms out, and whomp whomp, they’re in an automat. And this is also a punchline when Marilyn Monroe sings “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”.

Marilyn Monroe:
“But it won’t pay the rental on your humble flat, Or help you at the automat”

Roman Mars:
And none of these movies explain what the automat is. It’s just assumed that everyone knew.

Lorraine Diehl:
The Broadway columns in the newspapers are talking about who was seen at the automat. Gene Kelly, when he was doing Pal Joey on Broadway. He and his wife would go over there, and Gregory Peck would love their scrambled eggs or something. Counts and Countesses coming in from Europe would say, “We’ve got to try this.”

Roman Mars:
And they would sit down next to people who were flat broke.

Avery Trufelman:
And you didn’t have to tip.

Lorraine Diehl:
No.

Avery Trufelman:
Which is kind of like Eatsa.

Marianne Hardart:
And that was the automat 110 years ago.

Roman Mars:
The story of the automat started when Joe Horn met Frank Hardart. Joe had put an ad in a local Philadelphia paper seeking a business partner.

Lorraine Diehl:
And so, they got together, and they opened a luncheonette in Philadelphia.

Marianne Hardart:
In 1888.

Lorraine Diehl:
1888, okay. Over to you.

Marianne Hardart:
No, no, that’s it, just adding a year, 1888.

Avery Trufelman:
And for a while it was just a normal luncheonette with famously good coffee.

Lorraine Diehl:
Until Frank Hardart went over to Germany, right? He was going to give himself a vacation.

Avery Trufelman:
There, Hardart encountered some very early German vending machine technology. Hardart bought one of these machines, and brought it back to Philly.

Marianne Hardart:
It was more Rube Goldberg contraption.

Lorraine Diehl:
Rube, but no one knows who Rube Goldberg

Marianne Hardart:
… is anymore.

Lorraine Diehl:
… Don’t you know who Rube Goldberg is?

Roman Mars:
With this overly complicated German vending contraption, the food in the windows was a sample display of what one could order. Customers would deposit a coin and wait around while someone in the basement cooked it, and then cranked it up in a dumbwaiter.

Lorraine Diehl:
It was a very convoluted way of getting your food, but everyone loved the novelty of it. So, they perfected it, and then they brought it to New York City, and they-

Marianne Hardart:
Yeah, went to New York City about 10 years later.

Lorraine Diehl:
10 years later, yeah.

Marianne Hardart:
So, it was in Philadelphia. The first automat was 1902, and then they came to New York City in 1912.

Avery Trufelman:
And now, equipped with the glass cubbies, the automat caught on, fast. But not because of the technology, that was just to get people in the door.

Lorraine Diehl:
The automat part was just this glorious gimmick.

Roman Mars:
People came for the novelty, but came back again and again because it was solid, good food, and cheap. The technology was just a mechanical turk.

Lorraine Diehl:
The only thing that was automatic was when you went in there and looked at this wall, but what was going on behind those walls is very different.

Avery Trufelman:
Behind the scenes there were people scurrying around, replacing all the food.

Roman Mars:
Past the vending walls were scores of workers, many of whom were recent immigrants, rapidly replenishing the food into the cubbies, and darting out to bus and clean dishware. And as automats expanded to more locations in both Philadelphia and New York, all the cooking itself happened in offsite commissaries.

Avery Trufelman:
These were separate kitchens, and they took up a whole city block. There’s one giant central commissary in New York, and one giant central commissary in Philly, and both were full of vats of sauces and pies by the hundreds, which dispatched hot and fresh to all the automats throughout the day.

Avery Trufelman:
The food for the New York locations was slightly different than Philly’s. There were little regional variations.

Marianne Hardart:
For mac and cheese, I think one had diced tomatoes in it, and the other one didn’t. You know, there were things like that.

Lorraine Diehl:
I think Philadelphia liked things spicier. Their taste was a little bit sharper than New York’s taste.

Marianne Hardart:
Our people are sharper, their food was sharper.

Roman Mars:
But all the restaurants were very united in how they looked.

Lorraine Diehl:
Joe Horn and Frank Hardart made it their business to make sure that when you walked into these places, they were really quite lovely. I mean, some of them were just art deco palaces. They were beautiful. And that, to me, is a generosity of spirit, because they know they’re not getting the carriage trade coming in every day, oohing and aahing, and asking for the wine list.

Roman Mars:
There are those rare brands that appeal across economic classes, like IKEA and Target. Horn & Hardart was one of them.

Avery Trufelman:
The automat was a place where anyone could eat in a time when it was nearly unheard of for a woman to go out to eat alone, or for people to just post up somewhere all day. And with the automat they could, without shame.

Lorraine Diehl:
And people who were just saving face, or saving shoe leather, looking for jobs, would be in there nursing a cup of coffee all day, and no one bothered them.

Marianne Hardart:
We didn’t even know that people would eat that way, and then as soon as they could, they…

Lorraine Diehl:
Exactly, and also, people could eat as much or as little as they could. You know, they had total autonomy. I just want a cup of coffee. I really just want five pieces of dessert. I want this. I want that. And you didn’t have to deal with what you should be ordering or how to order. And it could be quick. It could be leisurely. You were the boss.

Avery Trufelman:
And because everyone ate there, that’s how they could keep it so cheap. It was all economies of scale. That’s how they made so much food so fresh, and so affordable. It was all volume.

Lisa Hurwitz:
Before McDonald’s, Horn & Hardart was the largest restaurant chain in America, and one of the largest in the world.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Lisa Hurwitz, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the automat.

Lisa Hurwitz:
And by largest, I’m talking about volume.

Avery Trufelman:
Just stop to imagine that for a second. Somehow, everyone knew about the automat. Marilyn Monroe was singing about it. It was in a ton of movies. Horn & Hardart fed more people than any other restaurant in the United States, and it was only in two cities, New York and Philadelphia.

Lisa Hurwitz:
For a lot of people, they never could have imagined that Horn & Hardart was ever going to disappear, because it was such a big part of the fabric of New York City, of Philadelphia. Today, I can’t ever imagine Starbucks disappearing, but it could one day, you never know. I think maybe Horn & Hardart got a little too comfortable, and they couldn’t imagine what was about to happen.

Avery Trufelman:
What happened to the automat was the story of the American city. White flight and mass migration to the suburbs. Americans had new homes with new cars, and new lifestyles.

Roman Mars:
And of course, this changed how people ate.

Lisa Hurwitz:
It became very trendy for women to be stay-at-home mothers – taking care of new homes, using their new kitchens, taking care of the family, and that meant less eating out.

Avery Trufelman:
So, while automats used to be seven day a week, three meal a day operations, they transformed into five day a week, one meal a day operations.

Roman Mars:
And the people who went out to eat for that one meal didn’t want 20 cent steaks anymore. If you were on the go, now there was fast food. If you wanted to sit, you wanted white tablecloths, and attentive waiters, and fancier food that you couldn’t cook at home.

Lisa Hurwitz:
People had more money to spend. They were more inclined to have maybe fewer meals out, but to have nicer meals.

Avery Trufelman:
Horn & Hardarts were getting old, and looking kind of bedraggled. Customers, and city governments, were investing less and less in the increasingly neglected inner cities around them. And so, Horn & Hardart launches their big comeback ad campaign, in which they dig in their heels and refuse to change at all.

Ad Excerpt:
If you want something nice to look at when you eat at Horn & Hardart, we suggest you keep an eye on your plate.

Lisa Hurwitz:
The campaign was called “It’s not fancy, but it’s good”.

Roman Mars:
Although eventually, it wasn’t even that good. When Horn & Hardart got less popular, the food turnover wasn’t as high, so it wasn’t as fresh.

Lisa Hurwitz:
But there was something going on simultaneously, which was that the Horns and the Hardarts were being pushed out of the company. And the new people, who weren’t automat people, they were fast food people.

Avery Trufelman:
The new heads of Horn & Hardart realized that their greatest asset was not their restaurants, but their real estate. So the really prime Horn & Hardart locations were franchised into fast food restaurants.

Lisa Hurwitz:
They were the first Burger King and Arby’s franchisees in Manhattan.

Roman Mars:
The automat lasted the better part of a century, which is pretty incredible for any business. The last automat in New York, which chugged along pretty much as a gimmick, finally closed in 1991.

Avery Trufelman:
I will admit that where I felt only disdain for Eatsa, I was totally taken in by the idea of the automat. Like, 100%, sign me up for this place that is both high brow and low brow, where I can eat in a beautiful art deco dining room and have as many slices of pie as I want without judgment.

Avery Trufelman:
And sure, some of that is just baseless nostalgia, and a genuine love of art deco, but I think there’s a reason Horn & Hardart was in business for 100 years, and I think it’s because it was always a very human experience. It wasn’t to-go containers. It was metal flatware from China. Customers stayed in the dining room to eat, so it was always full of people hanging out.

Roman Mars:
And ultimately, humans seem to crave some kind of interaction when they go out to eat, even today.

Gwyneth Borden:
People aren’t necessarily looking for an all robot kind of experience. I mean, when they walk in they want it to be easy and convenient. And they want to, if they have an issue, be able to communicate to someone who can take care of them.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Gwyneth Borden, the Executive Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which is the trade association for the restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area.

Gwyneth Borden:
2015 was the first year in the U.S. when the Department of Commerce was tracking that people spent more money on dine-out food than groceries, and increasingly, what we have seen, is food is the modern form of entertainment.

Avery Trufelman:
Demand for restaurants is up, which means there’s a national shortage of restaurant workers, especially in expensive cities like San Francisco, where the median cost of a one bedroom apartment is now $3,700 a month. How do you pay for that while working in a restaurant?

Gwyneth Borden:
As labor costs overall have risen, it’s harder to find people to work in farming, it’s harder to find people to work in restaurants, so you have to pay people more.

Roman Mars:
So restaurants have been trying to get by with fewer people, with self-ordering screens, or counter-service where you just grab a number for your table, but this can be taken too far.

Gwyneth Borden:
What we know for a fact is that people will eat in a mediocre restaurant for food, but won’t accept bad service.

Avery Trufelman:
If you look at Yelp, or TripAdvisor, or whatever, you see in peoples’ reviews that service is a really important factor.

Gwyneth Borden:
You know, in general, yes, people will write things about the food not being great, but it’s what’s usually drives them to do that is a bad experience where they feel like they were not seen or heard.

Avery Trufelman:
So, rather than hiding the workers in the back and automating the front of the house, like Eatsa or the automat, some new automated restaurants are trying to flip it. They want the food to be served entirely by humans, but it’s cooked by robots.

Avery Trufelman:
I went to one of these places in San Francisco. It’s a robot burger restaurant called Creator, but where people greet you, and guide you through the menu, and place your order for you.

Waitstaff:
One salad, one fountain drink, two of the salads, the mixed green salad and winter green salad, one-

Avery Trufelman:
And then clear glass robots assembled your burger in under five minutes, but then a human calls out your name and hands your order to you. And the secret power of this restaurant is not a central commissary kitchen, it’s the 40 some odd engineers working in the office next door.

Roman Mars:
Because whether they automate the front or the back, these businesses are not just selling food, they are selling their technology.

Avery Trufelman:
And that’s true for Eatsa. They’ve gone from selling quinoa bowls to selling their service system. Their two locations in San Francisco are now shuttered, with no signs of when they’ll open again. Eatsa wouldn’t go on record for an interview, but their PR representative told me that now Eatsa is focused on selling their serving technology to other chains, like a macaroni and cheese restaurant called Macked, and another chain called Wow Bao.

Roman Mars:
Even at McDonald’s, it’s pretty common to order on a screen, and a salad making robot named “Sally” is being put in a restaurant chain based in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. There are new iterations of vending machines, and faceless delivery, and robot chefs popping up everywhere.

Avery Trufelman:
The point is, yes, Horn & Hardart restaurants are gone, but more and more chains are becoming automats.

Credits

Production

Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Lorraine Diehl and Marianne Hardart, authors of The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece; Gwyneth Borden, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association; Lisa Hurwitz, maker of the upcoming documentary The Automat.

Comments (13)

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    1. Elsbeth WIjburg

      Indeed! The Febo has built their whole brand around it, and they are still used but only for snacks and fastfood. In Dutch we would say ‘trek een kroket uit de muur’, which is translated to ‘pull a kroket out off the wall’.

    2. Max McGill

      This is true. I’ve come across 3 in just the past few days, for example https://www.google.com/maps/uv?hl=en&pb=!1s0x47c69f870816207b%3A0xc0e4ede1ea11517e!2m22!2m2!1i80!2i80!3m1!2i20!16m16!1b1!2m2!1m1!1e1!2m2!1m1!1e3!2m2!1m1!1e5!2m2!1m1!1e4!2m2!1m1!1e6!3m1!7e115!4shttps%3A%2F%2Flh5.googleusercontent.com%2Fp%2FAF1QipNTCdwKcGItBLmCfkVSj7Xcs_w74ip-EF6nyLlH%3Dw814-h605-n-k-no!5sGoogle%20Search!11b1&imagekey=!1e10!2sAF1QipPg6sjDNPFQ9nHsZpa6yNgLptwpFcZspIzSQHqY&viewerState=ga#

  1. Steve s

    I like the idea of not having to interact with a waiter or not having to leave a tip. With fast food servers I feel pressured to make decisions, can’t spend time exploring the ingredients, and end up in a line to place my order. Or worse, waiting, Alone. I rarely eat out with anyone else; eating out isn’t sociable for me, it’s just a need.

    McDonalds is quickly moving in a direction that I like on that front, even tho I don’t care for their food much. I can order two triple cheeseburgers and couple clip and not feel like I’m being judged.

    Cities that only have sit down diners frustrate me in that regard. It’s wasted time, awkward, and the bill is often outrageous. I am envious of Japan in some ways here; surprised Japan wasn’t mentioned really.

    This podcast takes an anti-automat attitude from the very start, which soured my enjoyment of it. Different personalities and priorities I guess; I understand the desire to be more human in an ever more disconnected world, but it’s a world many feel rejected from. As noted, it’s fun to hate these days and not consider other’s views.

  2. TS

    So is this the explanation for the photo on the cover of R.E.M.’s album, “Automatic for the People”? (I assumed that photo was from Athens, GA, their home town.)

  3. Eric

    Never got to try Eatsa at home in San Francisco, but funnily enough I got to try their technology when visiting Chicago at a place called Wow Bao. Funnily enough the majority of the other people there were Door Dash delivery drivers.

  4. Coco

    I did try eatsa! It was goood I appreciated the high customization level, kind of like the 5 desserts you don’t feel as judged to change 5 of the 8 things :)

    Does anyone know what is the advertising podcast mentioned in the food as section?

  5. Elise

    I remember being taken to one of them quite a few times when I was a child. Must have been in the early 60s. I seem to recall it was somewhere around 34th street. Thank you for bringing back fond memories of my childhood. It feels as though it was yesterday!

  6. Motti

    I can’t believe didn’t mention the phenomenon of UberEats and the other apps, the new Automat.

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