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Return Of The Automat

“To have your own stack of nickels placed in your tiny hands; to be able to choose your own food, richly on display like museum pieces; to make quick and final decisions at the age of eight; this was a lesson in financial dealings that not even two years at the Wharton School could buy today.”

— Neil Simon

Long before anyone thought of shopping over the Internet, Horn & Hardart was advertising food as “Quick as a Click.” Now a restaurant named Bamn! is due to open as an Automat in New York. The last automat in New York closed in 1991, and I had the pleasure of eating there the day before it closed. But it was already well past its prime, and I never new the excitement that led the concept to be part of the popular culture — the automat that Irving Berlin wrote about, that actors and actresses used to frequent ― that was gone by the time I was born. Though when my parents took me just once to experience the last standing automat at 3rd Avenue and 42nd Street, I do remember as a boy feeling some of the thrill and excitement that Neil Simon describes above.

Some of the early planning meetings to launch PRODUCE BUSINESS were held in an art deco deli on 57th Street and 6th Ave. It was a former automat (shown above) and the building was beautiful. Now it is being torn down to be replaced by a Hilton Vacation Club.

There have always been some automats in the Netherlands, and Japan has an enormous amount of vending machines. But the automat was in-sync with the times, its self-serve vending machine bespeaking a faith in technology as the path to a better tomorrow.

In its time, Horn & Hardart was famous for coffee. And now they sell franchises.

Recently in the Pundit, I recommended overseas travel as a path to competitive advantage. It worked for Messers Horn and Hardart. Frank Hardart was inspired on a trip to Berlin where he saw the Quisiana Automat. They bought the German equipment and opened their first Automat in Philadelphia in 1912. The rest was history. You can buy the book here.


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