More than a century ago, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart gave Americans the first nibble of fast-food restaurants with Horn & Hardart, a Philadelphia-rooted chain whose Automat vending machines dispensed plebeian fare such as Harvard beets, creamed spinach, and rice pudding.

But it was coffee that Horn and Hardart built their empire on — bold but smooth, made as a French drip while everyone else was selling boiled.

The last H&Hs closed in 1991 amid bankruptcy. Shortly after, two entrepreneurs briefly reproduced some of the food and sold it in supermarkets' refrigerated cases.

The coffee piqued the interest of one of those investors, Al Mazzone of West Chester. A tech company executive, Mazzone has considered it his side mission to revive the H&H brand through coffee. The Automat? Probably not feasible, he concedes. But there are nascent plans for some kind of H&H retail. (The Horn & Hardart Cafe in Suburban Station is a separate business.)

For now, Mazzone, 69, who recently took on two partners, e-commerce specialists John Tooher, 55, and Dan Lievens, 42, is selling H&H coffee online. It's available ground, in whole bean, and — starting in early August — as K-cups.

Horn & Hardart principals (from left) John Tooher, Al Mazzone, and Dan Lievens outside the original Automat at 818 Chestnut St.
Horn & Hardart principals (from left) John Tooher, Al Mazzone, and Dan Lievens outside the original Automat at 818 Chestnut St.

Something else to note: Tooher is from Ireland, Lievens from Belgium. Neither had heard of H&H before last fall.

We sat down last week at a coffee shop around the corner from the first Automat, at 818 Chestnut St. (now a doctor's office).

I remember that you were among the first to try to revive H&H in the early '90s. What happened?

Mazzone: I stepped away when the other partners wanted to go in a different direction. I'd always been in the background, and I always regretted stepping away, and I used to complain about it all the time. About six, seven years ago, my wife said something like, "Either stop complaining about it, or do something about it." I went back and started reapplying for all the trademarks, and I invested all the time and money to do that. I always wanted to do coffee. But I didn't know enough about it then, and I didn't have the relationships. I've now been studying coffee for 20 years and I felt I knew enough about it and I had relationships now in the industry. So I decided, it would be really fun if I could go back and re-create the original Horn & Hardart recipe, because no one knew what it was.

If nobody knew what it was, how do you …

Mazzone: I'm a great detective. I knew when they started importing coffee, there was no Sumatran coffee, no African coffee. Everybody knew coffee came from South America and Central America. So I didn't even have to look at 80 percent of the [current] coffee suppliers. I knew it had to be Brazil, it had to be Colombia, because those were the two biggest. And I knew it was someone else, I wasn't sure, but I had a taste profile that I knew about. And I was able to dig up some shipping records of where they were importing in Philadelphia and New York, and it turned out it was also Costa Rica. That I was surprised about. So I had my three countries: Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica. And it took me about two years. I ended up tasting like 240 different coffees, and I had what I thought was the blend because it has all the characteristics that they said. If you go to Page 75 of the 400-page operations manual, it was written out, "This is how you make the coffee."

What's it like?

Mazzone: It is a good, strong cup of coffee, but it's not bitter.

I recall seeing it for sale on Amazon.

Mazzone: I was selling a bunch of it, in 38 states, and actually six countries. The U.S. consulate in the Congo was buying coffee. Amazon kept getting more and more expensive, and it got to the point where we were making almost no money selling it.

How did John and Dan figure in?

Mazzone: Around November [2016], we had a meeting. I said, "You work with a friend of ours. I'm very happy with the results," and so I hired them as consultants. And we did three strategy sessions about the brand. The neat part about it was them not having a background, not having anything preconceived about Horn & Hardart. They started falling in love with the story. And they really got the power of the brand.

Lievens: As John and I started going out there and doing some initial marketing and testing of the waters, the amount of stories that we get from people saying, "Oh, my God. I remember my grandmother taking me to the Horn & Hardart on 69th Street," and all these stories are building up. And the biggest question that we get now is, "Are you guys opening up again? Can I get some rice pudding? Can I get some of the baked beans?" So, based on the overwhelming response that we are getting from our market study, we are going to look at some potential of opening something beyond e-commerce.

A brick-and-mortar Horn & Hardart?

Tooher: Hopefully we will. But not for at least a year. We're working on it as a concept. What would it be? How do you bring back a brand and make it relevant to now? We're not going to bring back an Automat, but we're going to bring back something.

Mazzone: I don't want to just be a clone of what people are doing. I don't want to knock off anybody. So I thought about it when Horn & Hardart started, they were revolutionary, they came up with something that wasn't thought of. If we're going to do this again, I want it to be like that scale. Like, "That's a great idea. I'm surprised we didn't think of that," kind of thing. My intention is to get the coffee really well established and turn the coffee into a national brand, and e-commerce is the only way we are going to be able to scale that sort of thing. And then if we are successful in doing that, then we can look at the brick and mortar, only because, I think, I'm tired of people saying, "When are you going to do that?"