Restaurant Employees Fleeing? Bring Back the Automat!

According to multiple news reports, the exodus of restaurant employees from their jobs has reached Biblical proportions, as Business Insider’s Juliana Kaplan and Madison Hoff reported last month.

A record-high 1 million restaurant and hotel workers quit in November — and it shows the labor shortage might really be a wage shortage

In November, 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs — and 1 million of them are restaurant and hotel workers.

That’s a record-high number of people quitting in a month overall, as well as a new record for the restaurant and hotel industry. But in a month where job openings dipped, and hiring remained robust, 1 in 16 leisure and hospitality workers in the US — 6.4% of the industry’s workforce — acted with their feet and left.

Helpful chart.

Yeah – serious problem. But there’s a reasonable – and fun! – solution.

I grew up on East 89th Street in New York during the 1950s. Three blocks away – on 86th between Lexington and Third – was a Horn & Hardart automat. Here’s how it looked in 1936, via the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The automat was the best: soup, sandwiches, main dishes, desserts – all sitting behind glass doors you could open with the drop of a few nickels. Not to mention coffee that flowed out of dolphin-shaped spouts.

Here’s some history from the NYPL’s Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart founded the Horn & Hardart Co., in Philadelphia in 1902. Horn and Hardart started their careers in 1888 with a luncheonette in Philadelphia. This soon changed, when Hardart became inspired by the “waiterless” service at some of Europe’s fine restaurants and hotels. While in Europe, Hardart purchased the automat equipment in Berlin, but the ship transporting it sank during a storm in the English Channel. Not discouraged, Horn & Hardart reordered the equipment. When the first Automat opened, the novelty of receiving one’s food from a self-contained glass enclosure after depositing a nickel or two created an immense impression on the public. The Horn & Hardart partners found a winning formula with the Automat.

After their initial success in Philadelphia, the first New York Automat opened at 1557 Broadway in 1912 . . .  The company would eventually grow to 165 locations – the Automats, cafeterias, and retail food shops. Most of the Horn & Hardart establishments in Philadelphia were cafeteria-style, while most in New York catered to a more hurried clientele, and thus were true automats.

The New York Horn & Hardart Automats rank among the legendary eating establishments of New York City, along with Mary Elizabeth, Chock Full O’ Nuts, Nedick’s, Longchamps and Schrafft’s. The Automats are remembered for their Art Deco buildings and stained glass windows, as well as their famous baked beans . . .

And, in earlier times, remembered for their well-dressed clientele, as evidenced in this Sulamith Sokolsky print – “The Automat” – that the Missus and I were fortunate enough to acquire some years ago.

For another trip down Memory Lane, there’s this video from Recollection Road, which has 131,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Narrator’s conclusion: “As we watch to world become a more automated place, with vending machines or kiosks replacing workers, it wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere, someplace, there was someone exploring the rebirth of automats. Because they were very popular places to eat, back in the day.”

Someone? That’s me!

Kind of.

UPDATE: By coincidence – or kismet? – this Joe Morgenstern review of a new documentary about Horn & Hardart appeared in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

‘The Automat’ Review: A Documentary Feast

Lisa Hurwitz’s film about the democratic chain of restaurants features a smorgasbord of high-profile interviewees

When a relatively unheralded documentary contains interviews with Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliott Gould, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner and Howard Schultz, chances are it’s something special, and Lisa Hurwitz’s “The Automat” certainly is. Those illustrious participants are all there to recall the glory days of a vanished, cherished and singularly democratic institution, and to share their own memories of breakfasts, lunches and dinners at a chain of restaurants where anyone from any stratum of society could put nickels in a slot, turn a knurled brass knob, lift a little door with a rectangular window and withdraw a generous portion of remarkably good food.

Here’s the official trailer.

One more tasty treat from the late, lamented Horn & Hardart.

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