Review: The Automat

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Bernard Gotfryd, Bernard Gotfryd photograph collection.

David Beriss

The Automat, directed by Lisa Hurwitz. 2021, 1hr 18 minutes.

I ate in an Automat only one time. This must have been in the mid-1980s, when I was living in New York City. I am pretty sure it was in the location of the very last Automat, at 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue. I do not remember what I ate, but I do remember being charmed by the vintage setting and being wary of the sad looking food. How long were items sitting in those little boxes? Were they going to be similar in quality to the kind of pre-made sandwiches you found in bus station vending machines? The place was a bit ragged by then, the bus station comparison seemed appropriate. I have a knack for turning up for famous things at the moment they are fading, like People’s Drug in DC, or K&B in New Orleans. The nostalgia associated with these places is thick, but by the time I get there, it is hard to understand what, exactly, people liked about them.

Fortunately, there is a new documentary, directed by Lisa Hurwitz, that cheerily explains why Horn and Hardart’s Automat restaurants were a big deal. Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart started their first restaurant in Philadelphia in 1888, as a lunch counter. As with any good food story in America, there is a New Orleans connection: Horn was a native of Philadelphia, but Hardart was a German immigrant who had grown up in New Orleans, where he worked in restaurants and learned to make what the film refers to as “French drip coffee.” He eventually moved to Philadelphia, bringing his coffee knowledge, and teamed up with Horn to start their restaurants. Theirs was not the first “automatic” restaurant. It was inspired by restaurants they had seen in Europe and they imported the machines from Germany to set up their first Automat.

Horn and Hardart’s Automat was a self-service restaurant, set up like a big vending machine. There were walls of metal boxes with little glass windows, inside of which was food, including soups, sandwiches, and entrées, as well as sides like baked beans and desserts. For most of its history, customers used nickels (acquired from the change-making lady in the dining room) to feed the slots, which resulted in the little windows magically opening and granting access to the food inside. And, of course, there was the coffee, delivered for five cents through an elegant spout in the shape of a dolphin. The food was generally affordable and the space was welcoming, clean, and even a bit luxurious, with marble table tops. In many of the Automats, the architecture and design were distinctively Art Deco.

The film’s narrators—including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, Wilson Goode, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—all wax nostalgic about eating there. The thrill of getting food from the little glass windows seems to have been particularly appealing to children. But the restaurants also appealed to a wide section of the working population in Philadelphia and New York. The Automat was a space where diners of all backgrounds could feel welcome, something that both Colin Powell and Wilson Goode note was definitely not the case in a lot of other restaurants in the first half of the 20th century. These were restaurants where women dining without men could feel comfortable and where people of color were as welcome as anyone else. In mid twentieth century America, this made Horn and Hardart distinctive among restaurants.

The film is a deep exercise in nostalgia. Brooks tells stories about visiting the restaurants, recalls his favorite foods, comments on Carl Reiner’s favorite foods, and is exceptionally charming. It is frustrating that the film does not generally name the people who are interviewed, so viewers must carefully watch for context clues. Several members of the Horn and Hardart families play key roles in recounting the chain’s history. Marianne Hardart and Lorraine Diehl, who co-wrote a book about the Automat, provide useful commentary throughout. The restaurants were deeply embedded in the cultural life of 20th century New York and Philadelphia. In 1932, Irving Berlin wrote a song, “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” for the musical “Face the Music” that was set in an Automat and the restaurants were featured in many more films. Automats were places where even poor people could afford to eat something, but they were also frequented by the wealthy and fashionable people. In this way, they might resemble the famous “bouillons” of Paris in the 19th century, or maybe the Waffle House in the U.S. today.

Some of the film’s narrators are at pains to distinguish Horn and Hardart from today’s fast food. They argue that the range of dishes and the relative elegance of the setting makes it different from the Burger Kings and McDonald’s that replaced them. Yet the immediate availability of the food, along with the emphasis on affordability and efficiency, seem to make the Automat one of the models for American fast food. The vending machine format only worked because of the industrially organized labor of the workers who made the food, mostly behind the scenes. The army of workers, including those who filled and serviced the restaurants’ systems, as well as the people who prepared the food in the company’s commissaries, were largely invisible, just as they are in the vast fast food empires today. The film argues that the company’s management maintained exceptionally good and close relations with their workers, supporting them and building loyalty. This seems to have served them well in the 1930s, when a movement to unionize many of the restaurants failed. The film recounts this episode mostly from the point of view of Edwin K. Daly Jr., the son of Edwin K. Daly, who was the company’s New York president from 1937-1960. There is clearly more to the story, as the images of marchers and newspaper articles that flash by suggest, and it is too bad the movie does not look more closely. Indeed, it would have been interesting to see some interviews with cooks, servers, or others who worked behind the scenes at the Automat.

There is some irony in the fact that one of the most enthusiastic participants in the film is Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. Shultz is adamant in stating that Horn and Hardart provided him with inspiration in creating his own chain as a space where people would feel welcome. The fact that Starbucks is going through its own intense labor organizing struggle right now is, of course, purely coincidental. While Starbucks has contributed in its own way to the transformation of American coffee shops, it certainly can trace its history back to fast food and, before that, to the Automat.

Horn and Hardart’s Automat remains a kind of “cultural icon,” according to historian Lisa Keller (one of the few people who gets named while being interviewed in the film), in New York and beyond, even though it has been gone for decades. The nostalgia is definitely still alive, as the many interviews in the film demonstrate and as I discovered myself, talking about the restaurant with my father and my aunt after I watched the film. This is a fun film and would provide a nice jumping off place for discussions in food studies classes about the role of public dining in modern American life, for minorities, for immigrants, for women, and more. I think Hurwitz could have gone deeper on the conflicts, including the unionization efforts in the 1930s, or the changing restaurant, real estate, and food contexts of the 1970s that eventually led to the restaurant’s demise. For comparison, I recommend the three-part podcast series from the Atlantic on Spam, which starts with nostalgia, but goes deep on labor history, all without losing sight of Spam’s role as a cultural icon too. Nostalgia can be fun, but iconic institutions like the Automat are even more interesting when we can see the rough edges, along with the baked beans and pie. The film is, however, worth watching. It is available on Kanopy, as well as on a few other streaming services.

2 Comments

  1. A very well written and enthusiastic review of this film. The Automat was a great place and, as one who used to eat there, I was not at all interested in any politics or political movements that may or may not have been going on through its long history. Everybody loved the Automat and that was enough for me – and apparently Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

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