June 30, 2022
In 1902, business partners Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart imported new coin-operated vending machine technology from Germany to open their first Automat, a "waiter-less" restaurant on Philadelphia's Chestnut Street.
Over the following six decades, the chain expanded to dozens of locations across the city and throughout New York, including the iconic flagship location in Times Square. "Horn & Hardart" became synonymous with both the Automat concept and the quintessentially American experience of high-tech mass dining in an elegant urban setting: consistent quality, impressive variety, zero wait time, and — importantly — low-cost food. The partners hit upon a perfect formula, providing exactly what was needed to nourish and caffeinate a bustling, growing city on the go.
This history is the subject of The Automat, a heartwarming new documentary from director Lisa Hurwitz. It's a beautiful love letter to a bygone era and way of life that manages, in retrospect, to come across as both sophisticated and quaint.
Rooted in an unprecedented period of urban expansion and development, the story of the Automat and the Horn & Hardart legacy is intimately connected with the history of the American city itself, through the rise and hey-day stages, sadly followed by the trajectory of decline, decay, and abandonment common to so many of the 20th century's urban institutions.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, over 20 million immigrants came to the U.S., many arriving in the eastern seaboard's gateway cities, while millions of additional internal migrants relocated from rural areas, seeking work and better opportunities in the factories and ports of these growing downtowns. For these new urban residents, the Automat provided cheap food and a sense of urban sophistication, without the complications, expenses, and elitist social judgments and snobbery common to more traditional restaurant dining of the time. (No language barriers! No tipping! No fears of using the wrong fork!)
As the film explains through interview after interview, the Automat's ornate dining rooms offered a communal atmosphere where laborers, stockbrokers, actors, and stenographers lunched alongside new immigrants, Bohemians, and the swelling ranks of down-on-their-luck unemployed and unhoused Americans. (When the restaurants were crowded, people were expected to share tables; during quieter hours or bad weather, lingerers could shelter inside and nourish a nickel coffee all day without being hurried along.)
The film includes cameo appearances and interviews with an impressive list of celebrities who recount their own fond and formative Automat memories, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Elliot Gould, and a very funny Mel Brooks. Former Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode describes strategy sessions held on the upstairs balcony of the downtown Horn & Hardart rooms, where organizers of the city's nascent Black Political Forum would meet for hours, and billionaire coffee magnate Howard Schultz credits his early experiences at the Automat for much of his vision for Starbucks.
Woven into this tight yet playful documentary are discussions relating the history of the Automat to a wide range of technological, social, and economic changes over the years, including new patterns of immigration, changing attitudes concerning race and gender, the expansion of transportation networks and delivery systems, new developments in advertising, pop culture, emerging business models, and the growth of the suburbs. A fascinating side-trip describes Horn & Hardart's venture into retail stores as well, selling pre-made pies and other packaged foods for takeout under the firm's "Less Work for Mother" slogan.
At times, one suspects that Hurwitz, like so many of the Automat patrons of yore she encounters, is a little too captivated by the spell and the spectacle of these wondrous and magical machines, dazzled by the brass and marble and Art Deco flourishes into an uncritical nostalgia. As a result, some viewers may find the treatment to more closely resemble a promotional film than a historical documentary — while a short segment on a failed attempt at unionization is included, for the most part, the film does not challenge Horn & Hardart's corporate image as a model of welfare capitalism, complete with caring bosses and employee picnics. In the end, however, the films delivers a sweet slice of Americana pie you can't help but want to savor.
Learn more about The Automat, which is screening at art house theaters and festivals across the country. You can also listen to the podcast 99 Percent Invisible's episode about the restaurant and its connection to urban life.