As an American on the blurry border between Gen X and millennial, when I hear the term automat, I think of a car wash. To previous generations, especially those who grew up in Philadelphia and New York, the automat was a culinary phenomenon.
Established in 1888 by entrepreneurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who adapted the idea from similar institutions in Europe, the automat was the nation’s first automated cafeteria, a place where everyone from Ellis Island immigrants to Wall Street bankers to working-class laborers could enjoy the same food, in the same hospitable atmosphere, sans waiters or tipping or any of the chichi trappings of dining out.
You simply dropped a nickel or two next to the slot for “ham and cheese sandwich” or “creamed spinach” or “lemon meringue pie,” and a little window opened, and the dish materialized. It was like the Replicator in Star Trek, decades before Star Trek. One interviewee in The Automat, Lisa Hurwitz’s amiable new documentary about the history of the Horn & Hardart chain, was convinced as a child that “there was a magician on the other side” of the windows.
For a time, the automat was the largest restaurant chain in America, despite operating only in the two aforementioned cities. It survived the Great Depression, World War II and Vietnam. It was referenced everywhere from silent cinema to Warner Brothers cartoons to Candid Camera. As much as the descendants of its founders may bristle at the term, with its implications of greasy grills, paper sacks and drive-thru windows, it was fast food before fast food was a thing. Horn & Hardart even developed retail establishments serving pioneering grab-and-go takeout fare, marketing the movement as “less work for Mother.”
Hurwitz dutifully collects all of this information, and yet, is there enough in the story of the automat and its creators to justify a feature-length documentary? I remained skeptical well into the 80-minute running time of Hurwitz’s film, and the first-time director’s shambolic style — leaving in “mistakes,” showing us the clappers, and other unnecessary meta flourishes — strikes a flippant tone from the movie’s first moments. We can’t all be Errol Morris.
But, perhaps like one of the automats itself, this method grows on you. You realize that Hurwitz’s chummy, convivial presentation echoes a casual gabfest at a Horn & Hardart with a few of the chain’s celebrity devotees. Colin Powell, who tells Hurwitz he has limited time — “I’ve got a Colombian ambassador waiting for me” — shares how inclusive the cafeterias were in the decades leading up to the civil rights movement. Ruth Bader Ginsburg offers a similar perspective on the automat as a cultural equator, a beacon of polyglot democracy. Old friends Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, in separate interviews intercut side by side, call each other cheap.
That three of these four titanic individuals are now dead adds an unexpected layer of poignancy to Hurwitz’s interviews. Though even without this unfortunate postscript, their reflections justify the often maligned emotion of nostalgia. There are few moments in The Automat more lyrical than Brooks waxing on about Horn & Hardart’s 5-cent French drip coffee, then largely a novelty outside of New Orleans, as something irreplaceable today.
The last Hold & Hardart holdout closed in 1991, owing to rising food prices, changing demographics and other factors; most of the storefronts are now pharmacies, bodegas and, inevitably, fast-food chains. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, another of Hurwitz’s famous interviewees, lauds the “theater, romance and sense of discovery” inherent in a visit to a Horn & Hardart, adding that the brand was a foundational influence on his own chain. Most of us who order a $4.65 skinny peppermint mocha grande from a Starbucks barista won’t be able to see the connection.
There is much talk, at the end of The Automat, about the possible resurrection of an automated cafeteria chain in contemporary life, the consensus being a hard pass. The market is too saturated with on-demand dining options, and more to the point, we’re too culturally and geographically atomized. Sitting in a public cafeteria and striking up a conversation with a stranger is a concept as foreign as sliding a nickel into a slot and receiving a hot plate of baked beans. Hurwitz has convinced me: I’m sorry I missed it.
THE AUTOMAT. Director: Lisa Hurwitz; Distributor: A Slice of Pie Productions; Not Rated; Now showing at Movies of Lake Worth and Movies of Delray