NYPL Exhibitions

Automat Backstage

Joe Horn and Frank Hardart decided early on that the most efficient way to ensure consistent quality in their business was to have all the food prepared at a central commissary and delivered by truck to Automat restaurants around the city. Workers in the commissary, at the corner of 50th Street and 11th Avenue, baked a dozen or so kinds of bread each day as well as pastries, pies, doughnuts, and cakes, all from scratch. They also made the soups and stews, the salads, sauces, and puddings, and everything else that could be prepared ahead of time. For decades they never used a mix or bought a ready-made menu item, but the costs of labor, fresh ingredients, and trucking food around the city became prohibitive, especially when customer numbers began to drop at midcentury. To keep prices low, the Automat turned more and more frequently to frozen, packaged, and semi-prepared food. Quality plummeted. “The bread would have made a great paperweight,” commented a food writer who tried a peanut butter sandwich in 1968. The commissary closed in 1971.