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Remember the old Horn & Hardart Automat? This entrepreneur doesn't, but he wants to bring it back anyway.

Philadelphia Inquirer - 6/8/2024

Jun. 8—David Arena was a toddler in 1991 when the last Horn & Hardart restaurant closed, ending the chain's 89-year run. He has never visited one of H&H's iconic Automats. He does not know the magic of plunking nickels into a slot and twisting a knob to open a glass door for a piece of pie or a bowl of Harvard beets.

But Arena, 35, is committed to bring it back.

We have heard this before about H&H. Three decades ago, the company was bought out of bankruptcy by entrepreneurs who turned it into coffee shops — banking on H&H's time-honored coffee — and even created a line of H&H frozen food sold in local supermarkets.

More recently, one of those entrepreneurs, Al Mazzone, a West Chester tech executive and Army veteran, started selling H&H coffee online in 2017. Mazzone, 70 then, was not interested in reopening the Automat. He knew that the dwindling ranks of Automat fans were not in his demographic favor.

He ditched that dream.

That is, until five years ago when Mazzone met Arena at a seminar for military entrepreneurs. Arena, an Air Force Reservist since graduating from Perkiomen Valley High, had his own business, Alcove Media, which provides photographic services to real estate companies.

Mazzone told Arena about H&H and the Automats, and "I just fell in love with the idea," he said. "I'm kind of a big history nerd."

A few years later, Arena sold Alcove and bought a stake in H&H. Now the chief executive, he revived the online coffee business to establish a customer base and to keep the name out here. He's currently looking for a location and hopes to reopen Horn & Hardart, Automat and all, in the next year.

"This isn't a nostalgia grab," Arena said. "What we're really doing is cutting lines, and taking the cashier and tipping out of the restaurant experience. I have two little kids and that's amazing. It's this sort of pain points that I think the self-service model eliminates."

"Obviously, I don't think that every restaurant in the world should be self-service," he said. "If I'm sitting in a coffee shop for more than a little bit and I want another item, I usually just don't even do it because I don't want to wait in line again. But if you're sitting in a coffee shop and it's like, 'Oh, I could just go up to that window with my credit card and get that coffee cake out of there.' That's a nice feature, too." The Automat also would work for takeout and delivery because the food is already cooked and ready to go, he said.

The new Automats, initially serving breakfast and lunch only, will not rely on a supply of coins or bills, as would have been the case even 10 years ago, when other entrepreneurs considered reviving the Automats, since credit cards and tap-to-pay are now commonplace.

Arena said he felt "a sense of moral obligation" to maintain the customer-service aspect that longtime customers valued. "We're not bringing back a 1955 Automat with chrome and baked beans and a meat pie," Arena said. "I really want to have the values that the company was founded on."

A quick history of Horn & Hardart

Philadelphian Joseph Horn ran an ad in The Inquirer in 1888 saying that he had $1,000 (worth about $33,000 in today's dollars) to invest. It was from his mother, and he needed a partner experienced in the restaurant business. Frank Hardart, a German-born waiter and cook new in town from New Orleans, replied: "I'm your man." They opened the first Horn & Hardart luncheonette at 39 S. 13th St. with 13 or 14 stools (depending on the account) in December 1888. The receipts for their first day amounted to $7.25.

A decade later, as they added restaurants, a salesman pitched them on a new German-made coin-operated food-vending machine. In June 1902, the partners launched their Automat, or "waiterless restaurant," at 818 Chestnut St. in Center City Philadelphia.

The Automat was fast food, Edwardian style. It spread to New York in 1912.

At its peak, just before World War II, H&H had 157 locations, including restaurants and takeout shops (slogan: "Less work for mother"), and fed 800,000 people a day.

But in the 1950s, McDonald's and other fast-food chains came along with their stacks of premade, paper-wrapped burgers and drive-thrus, and ate H&H's lunch.

Most New York locations became Burger King and Arby's franchises. The original Automat, at 818 Chestnut St., closed in 1968 and its wall was put on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution'sNational Museum of American History in Washington. By then, most local H&Hs had become cafeterias. The last Philadelphia-area location, on City Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, closed in 1990, a year before the very last restaurant, at Third Avenue and 42nd Street in New York, shut down.

The Automat lives on in American lore. The 2011 documentary The Automat featured recollections and a new song by H&H fan Mel Brooks. Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill is home to restored stained-glass windows from one location, rescued from the wrecking ball. The original location still bears the 18-foot "automat" sign, after building owner Posel Management restored it.

In 2002, Marianne Hardart, a great-granddaughter of Frank Hardart, wrote a company history called The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart's Masterpiece with historian Lorraine B. Diehl.

In researching the company, Arena reached out to Hardart. She agreed to provide to him 50 copies of the book, which has been out of print for 20 years. Starting at noon Sunday, June 9, the 122nd anniversary of the first Automat's opening, H&H will sell the copies ($30) at its website, hornandhardart.com. If demand calls for it, they will publish additional copies, Arena said.

The book is full of H&H trivia. By city tradition, candidates for the Philadelphia primary still draw numbered balls from an old Horn & Hardart coffee tin to determine the order their names appear on the ballot. The book also includes the quirks and clientele of certain popular locations. In Philadelphia, politicians and lawyers favored the one at 1508 Market St., now the Clothespin building; dock workers hung out at 234 Market St., now Kick Axe Throwing. The book says a table was reserved for "ladies of the night" at the 11th and Arch Streets location.

Diamond merchants from Jewelers Row frequented the original. So could H&H come back to the very space it originated?

"It won't work," Mazzone said, sadly. "It's 10,000 square feet, which is a lot, but it's just not configured right."

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