Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Get Stuffed

To the automat and back



A whiz through the fast food lane

It’s 1971, and just about anybody who bothers to pick up hitchhikers has Joplin or Hendrix or the Doors blasting out of their dash. Two teenaged girls from the prairies – one of them me – are wandering the streets of New York. We’re hungry but pretty tight-fisted because we’ve thumbed our way across from Vancouver with about a hundred and fifty bucks between us. So we stop and ask a local who looks like he’ll answer us, where’s a good cheap place to eat? Horn & Hardart’s he says waving his arm up the street in the direction of an ornate facade. We like art deco. Off we go.

Anybody living in New York since the beginning of time knew what a Horn & Hardart’s was and where one was. But those two prairie hippy chicks were like, forget it.

When we walked through the door we stopped dead in our tracks. Behold: a cavernous space with the three walls before us covered in row upon row of tiny glass doors mounted in frames of shiny stainless steel. The middle of the huge room was filled with small dark-coloured wooden tables and chairs that clattered and scraped on the tile floor as diners, and there were hundreds of them, came and went.

Not that we were deprived or anything, but they didn’t have anything like this in Edmonton or Regina. So it took a minute. But being the cool international travellers we were at age 19, we twigged on pretty quickly. Flip in a coin, turn, turn, turn the handle and out popped the item of your choice from behind one of the little glass doors. Ham sandwich. Macaroni and cheese (there was a "hot" section with condensation on the windows). Coconut cream pie. You name it, you got it. Plus you could see it. Everything was covered, clean, antiseptically peptic, and cheap. And delivered instantly onto your waiting tray. What more could hungry people in a hurry ask for?

Not much, reckoned Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who are credited by some, particularly Horn and Hardart themselves, as the team who delivered the first fast food concept.

Coffee without eggshells

Philadelphia. The late 1880s. A young Joe Horn with a thousand bucks in his pocket teamed up with a lunchroom waiter named Frank Hardart and opened a 15-seat café. Long before Starbucks was even dreamt of, they gained quite the reputation for their coffee, brewed in quite the innovative way – by drip (this was in the days when coffee shops still put eggshells in with the coffee to take out the bitter flavour). They also threw out the old stuff after 20 minutes – unheard of!