By Gaetano Kazuo Maida
A film that starts off with the instantly recognizable dulcet tones of Mel Brooks gushing, “one of the greatest inventions, insane centers of paradise…” is irresistible even if you’ve never heard of the Automat. For those of us of a certain age from New York or Philadelphia (and yes, I’m one: born and raised in New York, with family in Philly), the Horn & Hardart Automat was a unifying experience of childhood delight and teenage necessity. You didn’t need a lot of money to eat, just a handful of nickels… In its heyday (1920s to the 1970s) it was, in just two cities, the largest restaurant chain in the country by any measure, at one point in the 1940s serving fully 10% of the population of Philadelphia.The Automat is a delightful new documentary by Lisa Hurwitz that celebrates a unique restaurant concept created at the beginning of the 20th century by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, partners who, amazingly to 21st century sensibilities, apparently met through a newspaper ad. Horn was an early restaurant entrepreneur who traveled around the country researching food service ideas, and Hardart was a New Orleans native who knew what good French coffee was all about. They tried a few models, but it was the discovery of “automatic” restaurants in Europe that used dumbwaiters between basement kitchens and the ground floor customer service that gave them the beginning of their big success; they imported an entire German version to Philadelphia in 1902. UItimately it was the self-service innovations of their chief engineer that created the vending machine wall, the nickel slot, the rotating service drums behind little glass doors, and the coffee dispenser, all of which set the Automat apart—ideas that fed right into the machine age obsessions of the time—that made them an attraction and an accessible dining experience. It also didn’t hurt that the company was committed to creating large, well located, designed, furbished, and maintained spaces, with staff that was treated so well (“like family”) they rejected the then very popular unionization movement. It also didn’t hurt that the company was committed to creating large, well located, designed, furbished, and maintained spaces, with staff that was treated so well (“like family”) they rejected the then very popular unionization movement.
Joan Crawford gets automat coffee as SADIE McKEE (1934)
Importantly, these innovations also made it possible for just about anyone to enjoy the restaurants. You didn’t need to speak English (each menu item was visible through the glass doors), you didn’t need to leave a tip, you didn’t have to engage with a waiter or waitress (intimidating to us as youngsters), and it was clear just by looking around that everyone was welcome—rich or poor, Black or white, immigrant or native, young or old—all were comfortable sharing the marble top tables. And perhaps like forerunners of today’s laptop-focused coffee-shop denizens, you could stay as long as you wished (and we did!).
Folks certainly liked the food too, and why not? Using a commissary kitchen model and focusing on consistently high quality preparations and fresh, seasonal produce, the Automats served tasty, affordable dishes that attracted loyalty. Commentators warmly remember the baked beans, Salisbury steak, creamed spinach, and all the pies, not to mention the coffee. Personally, I was partial to the egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches, as well as the chicken pot pie (more nickels, but more protein!).
Director Hurwitz wisely builds this richly detailed documentary around Brooks’ comments, suggestions (he’s cheerleading and directing at the same time), and ultimately his song, “There Was Nothing Like the Coffee at the Automat,” an amazing Broadway-esque number he wrote, and performs with gusto backed by a full orchestra. She also populates the film with big Automat fans like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner, Howard Schultz, Wilson Goode, several veterans from the company, and a few expert commentators.
Apparently one of the keys to the rapid rise and success of the chain was the historic entry into the workforce of women for the first time. Now there was a huge number of new lunch and dinner customers, none of whom would be refused service or have to leave a tip. The other factor was the massive wave of immigration to the country from 1880-1920 which brought millions of people for whom English was a second language at best. “Horn and Hardart served as an Americanization process,” says historian Lisa Keller. RBG adds, “there were all kinds of people, from poor people to matrons in furs and students.”
Former Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode tells us that at Horn & Hardart “African Americans could go and feel dignified.” He mentions as well that many meetings were held there with activists of the Black political movement that ultimately resulted in his election as mayor. And Powell, a native of the south Bronx (like me!), cites the restaurant chain as his introduction to integration and diversity, an awareness that helped him in his racial reform efforts in the U.S. Army.
Starbucks’ Howard Schultz somewhat implausibly claims the Automat as the inspiration for his coffeeshop chain, but does cite the theater, excitement, surprise, and delight of going to an Automat making a deep impression on him. The H&H veterans all credit the commitment of the founders and their successors to the principle of doing things the right way.
The film is wonderfully seasoned with footage from many old Hollywood films featuring scenes at an Automat (which may have been mysterious to today’s viewers of classic films who never got to experience the restaurants in person), with all the stars of that era featured. Even cartoons! The Automat was clearly a national icon in its day.
There’s perhaps just a bit too much detail about the decline and eventual end of the Automat, but the delights of this film (and the clearly joyful remembrances of the participants) are what remain with you, and Mel Brooks’ song may prove to be a troublesome earworm. You’re welcome!
The Automat Horn & Hardart Movie is opening all over North America. Check here to see when it will be screened on the big screen near you.
More fascinating information below.
Want to see more images, clips from movies, interviews and recipes? Go to “THE AUTOMAT–Recipes, In The Movies & More“
79 Minutes / USA / English
Lisa Hurwitz was born and raised in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. She graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and went on to work at arts organizations in Washington including The Olympia Film Society, where she directed The Olympia Film Festival, having started her affiliation there by volunteering as a projectionist. Lisa helped oversee The Arts + Ideas Stage at The Stroum JCC of Greater Seattle and The Seattle Jewish Film Festival. She later moved to New York City where she worked as a publicist at an Italian public relations firm. Her first feature film The Automat premiered at The 2021 Telluride Film Festival. Her next project, a narrative romantic comedy film set in Italy, is currently in development. She resides in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a media professional and strategic planner. He has both owned and consulted for restaurants, and has been active in the tea arena here and in Asia. He was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and producer/director of several films including Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. He was featured in the film by Les Blank and Gina Liebrecht, All in This Tea. Maida is currently executive director of the nonprofit Tea Arts Institute, as well as Buddhist Film Foundation, which produces the International Buddhist Film Festivals around the world.
Maida has written for EatDrinkFilms about his search for the perfect Bialy, about Les Blank’s ALL IN THIS TEA, and reviewed THE VELVET QUEEN, CITY OF GOLD, THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE, Jewish food films, and RAMEN SHOP
Lisa Hurwitz discusses The History of Automats on “Let’s Talk History!
Hard to find but a terrific book is the 2002 The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece,by Lorraine Diehl and Marianne Hardart.
Check your library for The Automat and other good reads.
Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure by David Freeland who uncovers skeletons of New York’s lost monuments to its homes of entertainment and dining. With a keen eye for architectural detail, Freeland opens doors, climbs onto rooftops, and gazes down alleyways to reveal several of the remaining hidden gems of nineteenth- and twentieth-Manhattan.
Nicolas Rapold interviews director Lisa Hurwitz in the New York Times
“A Taste of the Past”podcast host Linda Pelaccio talks with Marianne Hardart, the great-granddaughter of Automat co-founder Frank Hardart; her father, Augustin, was the last of three generations of Hardarts to manage the Automats.
“The Automat: The Most Culturally Relevant Film For Post-Pandemic America”- an interview and overview by Giovanni René Rodriguez for Forbes.