‘The Automat’ remembers when a nickel could buy the American dream

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PJ Grisar, The Forward

This story was originally published on Feb. 24 by the Forward. Sign up here to get the latest stories from the Forward delivered to you each morning.

It was my grandmother who tipped me off to “The Automat,” a new documentary about the rise and fall of Horn & Hardart restaurants. It’s no wonder why. These eateries, which for over a century drew a diverse crowd of New Yorkers and Philadelphians with the promise of cheap, quality food and mechanical pageantry, seem to be fondly remembered by anyone old enough to have experienced them in their prime.

First-time director Lisa Hurwitz interviewed Mel Brooks (who provides a credit song, which he sang himself) about the “panache” of Horn & Hardart’s dolphin-shaped coffee spigot. Ruth Bader Ginsburg says the automat showcased “the great U.S.A., with people of all different colors and religions and manner of dress.” Colin Powell and former Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode recall a place where a Black person could feel safe enjoying a meal in midcentury America. Howard Schultz – improbably – says the “romance” and “theater” of the automat informed his “storytelling” at Starbucks.

The questions driving Hurwitz, who is under prime, automat-appreciating age, is what made these restaurants so special and what became of them. She lands on some fascinating answers, interviewing Horn & Hardart family members, historians and former employees.

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The Automat

The chain was started by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart in Philadelphia in 1888, and its fortunes were intertwined with societal change. Women entering the workforce prompted expansion and immigrant communities, who viewed the automat as an American novelty, appreciated the fact that you didn’t have to speak English to get your food from the brass doors. Later on, the suburbs dealt a blow to business, as did the fateful choice to increase the price of coffee from a nickel to a dime.

Hurwitz, who worked on the film for nearly a decade, has gathered a tremendous amount of archival photos and footage, pairing her interviews with the likes of Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner with fun animations and cultural nods to these thrifty machine-walled cafeterias (you can watch Jack Benny treat his celebrity friends to a roll of nickels and “The Flintstones” enjoy a stone-age era automat).

In between the economics and a primer on the machines and cooking, a compelling case is made for Horn & Hardart’s appeal as a cultural equalizer. That democratic spirit extends to Hurwitz’s filmmaking, which doesn’t edit out her adjustment of Colin Powell’s tie or Mel Brooks’ regular suggestions on how she should put the film together. But the film is less generous when it comes to the chain’s rough patch in the ‘80s, where the unhoused are blamed for one of Horn & Hardart’s major setbacks on the way to obsolescence.

The Automat: The late portion

In a late portion addressing the backslide from the restaurants’ posh, art deco design, talking heads resent how people with nowhere to go began to linger at the restaurants. The aura of equity, so colorfully illustrated by those who grew up poor, disappears. A former busser explains, with some distress, how he wasn’t allowed to turn people away and an ad man explains how he maneuvered the challenge of unwanted patrons with a campaign of “We’re Good, Not Fancy.” No one who went to these restaurants to stay warm is interviewed for the film, except in an archival news clip at the end.

This is disappointing because Hurwitz seems to cover everything else at great length – well, except for an effort by employees to unionize that’s presented as a short-lived nuisance.

Still, “The Automat” is an engaging piece of American history, sure to bring back memories for those who have them and inspire envy in those born after Horn & Hardart’s heyday. Sticking with the one restaurant – Chock Full o’ Nuts is presented as the only real competition – Hurwitz doesn’t investigate the automat concept’s small renaissance, with Sprinkles Cupcake’s vending machine or the several touchscreen dumpling shops that cropped up during the contactless COVID era. But that’s for another generation, and certainly less equitable than its predecessors. (It also seems more motivated by Instagrammable gimmickry than a fondness for the past, as the dumpling shop’s section on “automat history” has a prominent “citation needed” which makes me think it was copy-pasted from Wikipedia.)

The Automat

It would be lovely if automats, and their inclusive brand of Americana could make a full recovery. That day may never come, but the film reminds us that once it was possible to get a nice, hot meal for pocket change – and maybe even run into Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner there.