New Orleanians take pride in their city’s food: home-cooked, created by Creole chefs, beloved by gourmets worldwide. Yet, New Orleans has also contributed to some decidedly American eating habits.
In fact, the earliest American fast food innovation had an Orleanian as partner in the enterprise: the Horn & Hardart Automat. Secret of that success? A New Orleans essential: perfectly dripped and brewed coffee.
Frank Hardardt (he would later drop the second D) arrived in New Orleans from Germany, in 1858, age eight. He settled in the city with his widowed mother, a brother and two sisters. He soon went to work. By the age of 13, he was employed in a lunchroom, where he learned the proper way to drip coffee. By 1875 he was listed in the “Soard’s City Directory” as a waiter at George McCloskey’s, 76 St. Charles Avenue.
In 1876, armed with his coffee-making skills, he bought a ticket to Philadelphia where the Centennial Exposition was being held. He was convinced that his deliciously brewed coffee would be instantly popular. At the time, most Americans just boiled coffee grounds and strained off the brew. Unfortunately, his attempt failed. He returned to New Orleans, got married and saved money. In the “City Directory” of 1880, he was listed as a “Confectioner” in Gretna. But, by 1886, the Hardardt’s had moved to Philadelphia.
This time, Hardardt was more successful. At first, he found whatever restaurant work he could. Then, in 1888, he answered an advertisement looking for a restaurant partner. The ad was placed by Joseph Horn, a well-off Philadelphian. Soon Horn & Hardart (the new spelling) had corner lunchrooms in the commercial areas of the city.
Horn had seen a “waiterless restaurant” in Boston, but Hardart, who could afford a trip back to Germany in 1900, found the German version more intriguing. It was called an automat, and it was a giant food dispensing machine costing $30,000. Hardart bought it and by 1902 the first Horn & Hardart Automat opened on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia.
Automats were restaurants where dishes of food were made available when little windowed doors were opened after coins were dropped in a slot. A wall of these metal doors could provide you with all the courses of a meal, impersonally dispensed with mechanical precision in the most modern way.
Horn & Hardart was known for quality control. Food was made fresh daily, and their recipes were tasty. Not only was the food popular, the coffee was properly dripped and dispensed from ornate metal spouts. In fact, according the “The Smithsonian Magazine,” Horn & Hardart coffee was freshly brewed every 20 minutes, and they were selling 90 million cups a year in their heyday. (The price of a cup was a nickel until 1950.)
The idea of the automat seized the public imagination. By 1912, an automat opened in New York, and at one point there were 40 in the city. The last one closed in 1991. The automat as a quick and inexpensive way to eat appealed to Americans, and in the Depression was essential for urban workers.
The automat found its way to popular culture. Lyricist Joe Robin explained in composer Jule Styne’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” that
A kiss may be grand,
But it won’t pay the rental
On your humble flat,
Or help you at the automat. The automat may be far in the past, but Horn & Hardart Coffee may be part of your future. The Mazzoni family of Philadelphia has acquired company recipes, and recreated their coffee blend. If you want to try some, go to hornandhardartcoffee.com/shop.
Sip it and sing the Horn & Hardart official song: Irving Berlin’s 1932 lyric “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie….”