Automats: Fast Food Before We Had Fast Food Restaurants

By | July 21, 2020

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(Berenice Abbott/Wikimedia Commons)

Say what you will about the fast food experience, but whatever it may lack in fresh ingredients and customer service, it more than makes up in speed and price. That's why, long before fast food giants like McDonald's and Taco Bell became a way of life, people were dreaming up eateries that gave customers the soggy, salty food they craved without the hassle. In the early 1900s, anyone with few cents to spare and even fewer minutes could get a whole meal in as little time as it takes to vend a bag of chips at an automat.

The First Automat

At the turn of the 20th century, Horn & Hardat rolled out the first American automat in Philadelphia. The concept of vending machine restaurants had been around for a few years, first popping up in Germany and Japan, but Horn & Hardat's contribution to the automat game became an institution in just a few years.

Founders Joseph Horn and Frank Hardat based their automat design on the original versions of the restaurants that were founded in Germany, featuring single items of cold food behind glass doors. Diners paid a specified amount for whatever they wanted, twisted the chrome-plated knob on the door, and pulled themselves out a perfectly mediocre treat. Eventually, many automats adopted the use of steam tables to serve hot items like soup buffet-style. By 1912, automats made their way to New York City.

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The Rise Of The Automat

Automats were the great culinary equalizer of the early 20th century. They were so inexpensive and convenient that urban dwellers of all stripes were seen stopping by for a quick meal. From stockbrokers to creatives to the chronically unemployed, everyone appreciates a nice cold sandwich or hot bowl of soup. There were no reservations, no assigned seating, and with nearly 400 menu items, these fast-paced and convenient restaurants had something for everyone. A Horn & Hardat menu from 1958 offers everything from a la carte items like roast beef, grilled cheese sandwiches, and ice cream alongside entrees like deep-fried sea scallops and prime rib with whipped potatoes and buttered fresh spinach.