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Horn and Hardart – the First Vending Machine Restaurant

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Published: Thursday, July 18, 2013

The modern vending machine was born in the 1880s and it didn't take very long for two outside-the box thinking entrepreneurs to take vending machines to a whole new level. In 1888, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened a restaurant in Philadelphia with only a counter and fifteen stools and introduced the north to New Orleans-style French drip coffee. But, Horn and Hardart weren't finished revolutionizing the restaurant business. In 1902, they opened the first automat restaurant in the United States, borrowing a concept from an establishment in Berlin, Germany.  An automat served simple food and drinks by coin or bill-operated machines; our fast-food nation was born!

 

The original automat had machines that only took nickels, a cashier in the center of the space, and came with instructions. The instructions read, First drop your nickels in the slot, then turn the knob, the glass door clicks open, lift your door, and help yourself. It was fast, simple, and the food actually tasted good! Gregory Peck, the late actor, once said, "I have always thought that the Automat in New York has the best scrambled eggs in the world."

 

In the early 1900s, the industrial revolution was in full swing and changes were happening rapidly in America.  The experience of eating in a restaurant without waitresses and fancy décor, where you selected and received your food quickly, was a lure for Americans from all walks of life. This was truly the golden years of the vending machine.  Th peak of the automat's popularity lasted from the Great Depression into the 1950s, but the pace of change was escalating and automats were nearing their end of their days.

 

Horn and Hardart restaurants were ubiquitous in New York and Philadelphia; at one time, there were over 40 of them in New York City. The decline of the automat style restaurant was hastened by the arrival of fast food establishments, which provided personal service, food served hot over a counter, and more payment options. In fact, many of the New York City Horn and Hardarts were converted to Burger Kings.  The last one closed in 1991 and officially ended an interesting era in the history of vending machines.

 

Though the days of restaurants filled with vending equipment instead of waiters, waitresses, or servers in funny hats, are long gone, food-dispensing equipment has made a comeback.  There are machines everywhere; in businesses, lobbies, schools, airports, public buildings, and other locations. For individuals considering a career change or looking to start a simple yet profitable business, the vending business offers the opportunity to be your own boss, make your own hours, and earn a decent income on your own terms.

 

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