A Horn & Hardart coffee shop, operating under license from H&H, opened about two weeks ago on Walnut Street, serving a blend of coffee like the one Automat patrons remember, as well as the classic food items to take home. There are, however, no plans to revive the famous Automat, with its coin- operated windows through which generations got their meals. Nostalgia will go only so far.
. . . Barbecue beans. Velvety-smooth chocolate pudding. Rich squares of bread pudding. Cucumber salad, bathed in vinegar. Creole spaghetti with diced onion. Creamy egg custard . . .
Flashback to May 1990, when Horn & Hardart was in Chapter 11 and all but dead. The remaining restaurants, in Bala Cynwyd, Jenkintown and Bensalem, had
Aaron Katz, who founded WPHL-TV and many other ventures over the years - while eating at H&H, no less - bought a majority stake in the company.
Enter Albert A. Mazzone, a Vietnam vet just back from a visit to Vietnam with his friend Loi Q. Tram, whose family owns restaurants in the Philadelphia area. Katz was eating at one of the Tram restaurants when he was overheard talking about a business trip to Vietnam. Tram introduced himself and put Katz in touch with Mazzone, figuring they would have something in common.
Mazzone, a painter specializing in large abstracts, had more or less given up the business world after working in computers and importing.
"But somewhere in the conversation, Aaron mentioned Horn & Hardart's," Mazzone said.
Mazzone, who grew up in Atlantic City, had loved the Automats.
"When you're real little, whenever you go to a restaurant, your parents order for you and you don't always get the food you really want. At an Automat, you got a handful of change and - well, I learned to really quickly eat (a piece of) pumpkin pie on the way back to the table."
Katz told Mazzone: "What I need is money and a partner."
Mazzone got to thinking. "Before I knew it, I was investing in Horn & Hardart," he said. Katz was the chairman, and Mazzone became president.
What Katz and Mazzone had was a name. A great name. And a stack of recipes.
They decided not to open restaurants, much less revive the Automats. They wanted to resurrect the tastes that millions of people had grown up with.
Katz and Mazzone searched for a commercial packer to produce the products
from the old recipes.
"Aaron is the taste arbiter, and he'd say, 'This isn't it. Did you follow the recipe?' 'Well, we did, but . . . ' They took all the shortcuts that they take now." They sampled for a year before they were satisfied. They knew their customers would be just as discerning.
Mazzone designed the packaging, using the old-style lettering. He even researched the color scheme.
H&H products entered the local market in June 1993. Finding a distributor was as easy as rhubarb pie. "We literally had people fighting for it," said Mazzone.
"We didn't want to rush out there," Mazzone said. "We had a belief that the name was strong, but we had to test this. The original thought was to do an 18-month test. So we really consider ourselves (14) months into the test. And for the first 12 months, we stayed in the Philadelphia area. It's only been in the past month that we've expanded into North Jersey and the New York area. It's been phenomenal there." H&H declined to release sales figures.
"We've been trying to treat the company very gently," said Mazzone. "We just want to return it with quality."
As H&H's prepared-food end began growing at a deliberate pace, Tram kept asking to license the H&H name for coffee shops, which Tram considers a still- untapped market in Philadelphia. "I just never wanted to get involved in retail," said Mazzone. "Food is one thing and coffee is something else."
Mazzone and Katz relented, and Tram planned his first shop at 1611 Walnut St., a few blocks from H&H's former commissary at 16th and Chestnut Streets. The 2,000-square-foot shop is pure '90s: light woods, artful lighting, piped- in light jazz and posters of the H&H glory days. "That one of Doris Day," said Tram, "someone came in and wanted to buy it."
Coffee and coffee drinks are the specialty, and baked goods - not H&H- recipe products - are offered. The prepared food is sold from a refrigerator case. Fifty kinds of whole-bean coffee are available for home brewers. Tram plans to open a dozen such stores in the area.
The brewed coffee at Tram's shop does bring back memories. Replicating the old H&H formula was Mazzone's pet project. "I had to buy a commercial grinder," said Mazzone. He tried hundreds of combinations over a year. "I stopped sleeping."
The H&H secret: "They just got the best-quality beans that were available," he said. "That was pretty revolutionary. . . . They roasted them perfectly."
Freshness was key. "When they made coffee, they filled out a timecard," Mazzone said. "Twenty minutes later, they tossed it."
H&H coffee wasn't for the faint of heart. "They would start out with a pound of coffee beans and they would end up with 2 1/4 gallons of coffee. . . . It was a much stronger brew."
No one knew a mochaccino from a caffe latte in 1888, when Joseph V. Horn, a Philadelphian with no restaurant experience (but armed with a $1,000 loan from his mother) advertised in a newspaper for a partner. Frank Hardart Jr., a Bavarian with plenty of grill experience, answered from New Orleans - the story goes that he jotted "I'm your man" on a sugar bag - and Horn & Hardart was in business. The partners opened a lunch counter in an 11-by-17-foot room at 39 S. 13th St. First day's sales: $7.25.
The food was simple. They did emphasize coffee and made their mark early selling drip coffee, far superior to the boiled coffee that was the same old grind.
Quality was paramount. Every day, the partners would sample the day's fare and throw out anything that didn't please them. For half a century, until his death in 1941, Joseph Horn's say was final. Chefs did not tamper with recipes, and uniformity was prized. Corporate officers staffed the sampling tables and maintained these standards to the very end.
At the turn of the century, the partners learned of a Swiss device being made in Germany that took in coins and dispensed food through vending windows: the Automat. Horn and Hardart ordered one, a $30,000 machine that was lost at sea when the ship carrying it to America sank off the coast of England. The Automat finally came to America in 1902, making its debut at 818 Chestnut St.
In 1911, Horn & Hardart Co., of New York, was incorporated, and a year later it entered the New York market with an Automat. H&H of New York largely shared officers with the Philadelphia operation, known as Horn & Hardart Baking Co.
After Hardart died in 1918, Horn hired Edwin K. Daly, a banker. They opened full-service restaurants, and added cafeterias to the Automats. Business boomed. The H&H slogan, "Less Work for Mother," was everywhere. The payroll swelled with 10,000 workers. (Now there are three.)
H&H quadrupled during the Depression. "They were clean, well-lit places, well-heated in the wintertime," Mazzone said. "Their policy was that even if you had that much food on your plate" - he pointed to crumbs on a plate - "they never asked you to leave. It was a very hospitable place."
The company hit its peak in the 1960s, when it had 44 restaurants and 55 takeout stores in the Philadelphia area.
The New York company saw the future, and it was served on a bun with a side of fries. In the 1960s, the New Yorkers started buying most of the Burger King and Arby's restaurants in the metro area, keeping the H&H restaurants mainly as showpieces. The last Automat in the world, at 42d Street and Third Avenue,
closed in 1992. (Horn & Hardart Co. in New York is now Hanover Direct Inc., a $500 million mail-order company based in Las Vegas. It is out of the restaurant business altogether.)
The Philadelphia operation, which owned 15 percent of the New York company, was not as prescient. It stubbornly held onto its restaurants and cafeterias as the fast-food giants nibbled away at market share. ("Adults will never eat in McDonald's," a vice president said in the early 1960s.)
"When I was going through the old stock reports going back for years and years, one of my sons came over," Mazzone said. "He was sitting next to me for a while, watching, and he said, 'Dad, why are you reading the same book?' I had a stack of maybe 15 of them. I said, 'What do you mean, David?' and he said, 'It's all the same thing.' And what it was, you open the first page and there was a picture of the chairman and he said almost the same thing, year after year. It was like the same excuse. The company was losing market share, but they never acknowledged that they were in trouble. It seemed to me like the only qualification for becoming an executive in the company was that you had been there for 30 years. Fine people, but all they knew was Horn & Hardart."
In the mid-1960s, the city Redevelopment Authority forced H&H out of its Center City commissary for urban-renewal work. H&H went into debt building a $15 million facility in Northeast Philadelphia, where, starting in 1966, it
baked for its dozen stores and for restaurants operated by the now-gone Linton's chain. This was the first year H&H lost money. In 1968, it closed its last Automat - the one at 818 Chestnut, where Jewelers Row merchants had dickered over diamonds and coffee and Gimbels employees had lunched. The Automat went to the Smithsonian - and in 1971, H&H went into Bankruptcy Court for the first time. It emerged without the commissary and with fewer restaurants.
Ten years later, down to nine restaurants, H&H went bankrupt again. It emerged in 1986 to become a million-dollar company under new management. It had a restaurant in Bala Cynwyd. It sold packaged H&H food in takeout stores and supermarkets. It later opened restaurants in Jenkintown and Bensalem.
Business soured, overhead soared, and H&H ended up in Bankruptcy Court in 1990. The Bala restaurant, the last original H&H store in the Philadelphia area, closed.
Enter Katz, who bought most of the stock. The deal's value was pegged at $135,000 cash, according to a document filed with the Securities and Exchange
Commission. He also assumed the company's debt, which was estimated at $500,000. Katz and Mazzone declined to comment on the price.
"For being a hard-bitten attorney, he is very romantic when it comes to the company," said Mazzone, referring to Katz, who prefers to stay on the sidelines when it comes to interviews. "He really hasn't done this as a business kind of thing. He spent a lot of time there (eating at H&H) as a young attorney."
Mazzone said H&H might do more products, but the long-range goal was simple: "If we can restore the company to its reputation for quality and consistency, and make the food available, we'll be happy."