Lisa Hurwitz’ affectionate documentary The Automat is the best kind of history lesson: informative, approachable, and as refreshing as a hot cup of coffee and a piece of apple pie. As it traces the rise and fall of iconic restaurant chain Horn & Hardart — which at one time served as many as 500,000 customers a day at its many locations in New York City and Philadelphia — the film offers a nostalgic look back at America during much of the 20th century.
Mixing low prices with well-made food and a clever delivery system, the H&H automats were more than just restaurants: They were a cultural phenomenon. Hurwitz gathers an all-star roster of interviewees to wax rhapsodic over their automat memories: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Elliott Gould, and more share fond recollections of deciding how to spend their nickels. (Ham sandwich? Pie? Creamed spinach? Baked beans? Yes, please!) Many call out the democratic nature of the automat, where you were guaranteed to see people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
Although the first Horn & Hardart automat restaurant opened in Philadelphia in 1902, the chain really came into its own in the Depression era, when its affordability was more important than ever. The walls of coin slots and little doors became instantly recognizable symbols of urban American life; movies like That Touch of Mink featured memorable scenes set at automats, and tourists flocked to them. But all good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and post-WWII inflation and increased competition ultimately turned out to be the beginning of the automat’s end (the last one closed in 1991).
Hurwitz captures all of this with a light touch, mixing plenty of humor in with her history. A sequence in which Brooks and Reiner razz each other about their automat habits/choices is particularly delightful. It’s very clear that all of the famous interviewees were cheerfully willing to participate in the film because they genuinely loved the automats — and the era that marked their heyday. And whether you were an enthusiastic automat patron, too, or never had the privilege, The Automat will leave you smiling … and probably craving a piece of pie.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Leslie Combemale The new documentary release The Automat teaches many things about the power of nostalgia, the history of New York City, the benevolence of companies long gone, and the egalitarianism of a 5 cent cup of coffee, but before all else, it teaches audiences that Mel Brooks has been and always will be a force. Read full review.
Sherin Nicole So very charming, Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary The Automat celebrates a dreamy America that can only be found on celluloid. It is a fond remembrance, quirky and informative, made more delightful by personal stories from Mel Brooks, Colin Powell, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What you don’t expect, is to discover automats united Americans from everywhere and provided safe harbor for women in the workforce. Seldom does a documentary become a daydream but Hurwitz has found a way with The Automat.
Jennifer Merin Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary, The Automat, will whet your appetite for a stroll down nostalgia lane and, at the same time, make you crave a slice of apple pie. The Automat is, of course, Horn & Hardart, one of the most popular and successful restaurant chains in US history and, alas, no longer in business to provide high quality, deliciously prepared and amazingly affordable food to 500,000 patrons per day. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand Self-service is all the rage. Of course, we’ve been pumping our own gas for years, but now we can buy a car from an ersatz vending machine that will spit out a Corolla like candy from a Pez dispenser. If you want to think about vending machines that deliver real value, there is really only one: the automat. Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary The Automat delves into the life and times of the Horn & Hardart and Automat restaurants in Philadelphia and New York City featuring nickel-operated vending machines that offered a wide variety of excellent, low-priced meals and New Orleans-style coffee. Created by Philadelphian Joseph Horn and New Orleans native Frank Hardart based on European models, these cafeteria-style food emporiums brought together people of all races, classes, and professions who sat together to enjoy a meal or a tasty cup of coffee dispensed from stylized brass dolphins copied from European fountain designs. The people interviewed by Hurwitz, including Mel Brooks (who suggests ideas as a volunteer co-director of the film), Elliott Gould, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Colin Powell, try to explain the peculiar love affair they and other H&H and Automat patrons have for the chain. The history is fascinating, and whether or not you ever ate at an Automat, you’ll feel a pang of loss at how changing times ended their century-long run.
Nell Minow: Is there any restaurant today that will provoke the kind of nostalgic devotion we see from Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz in The Automat? Lisa Hurwitz’s affectionate documentary evocatively portrays the magic of a place that respected its customers enough to provide excellent food at low prices in spotless, elegant surroundings (boy, do I wish I had some of those dolphin coffee spigots). The respect for employees seems almost as far off in time as the 5 cent coffee. The movie has a lot of charm and I hope it inspires future restauranteurs as the Automat inspired Schultz.
Susan Wloszczyna: I was happy to breeze through memory lane as I watched Lisa Hurwitz’s doc The Automat, which digs deep into Horn and Hardart cafeteria chain. There is something delicious about learning how these art-deco emporiums welcomed one and all, rich or poor, White or Black, male or female, even if they were homeless and simply used a cup to make a condiment soup with mustard and ketchup. Read full review.
Pam Grady: For some, this affectionate documentary will be a trip down memory lane. For most, The Automat will be an eye-opening peek into a New York/Philadelphia phenomenon of early and mid-20th century, a once-thriving group of restaurants where a few nickels to delivered into slots delivered a feast. Automat fans including Mel Brook, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, and Elliott Gould (the “baby” of the group who turns 84 this year) describe fond memories stretching back to childhood of nickels spent on creamed spinach and apple pie and of a warm environment where everyone was welcome. On the company side, former executives and descendants of founders Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart relate the inspiration and philosophy behind those coin-op drawers and explain what eventually doomed the Automats. The personal and business stories meld into a nostalgic, informative homage to a beloved institution.
Sandie Angulo Chen: The Automat is an engaging documentary about the history of the original automat restaurants, Horn & Hardart, in Philadelphia and New York. Director Lisa Hurwitz interviews an impressive slate of former regulars, including the now late Mel Brooks, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who all wax poetic with palpable fondness about their experiences hobnobbing with a complete cross-section of urban society, from Uptown doyennes to working-class laborers, in the golden years of the automat. Interviews with historians, former employees, and the descendants of the Horn & Hardart founders and executives provide a behind-the-scenes look at the automat’s pivotal sociological, cultural, and entrepreneurial place in the history of eating out. The director wisely discusses class, race, and how the automat inspired other revolutionary restaurant trends. A sweet, nostalgic, and surprisingly relevant documentary.
Loren King The Automat is irresistible for anyone who relishes images of old New York, dining history, art deco style and an honest cup of coffee. That it pours from a European-inspired spigot just adds to the appeal of Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat, an entertaining and nostalgic look at the once wildly popular eateries with their glass, chrome and marble interiors founded in 1902 by Joe Horn and Frank Hardart. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore The concept of The Automat feels like a nostalgic dream to me at 41 years of age. The closest thing I can equate it to is the rotating pie cases from my childhood, eating lunch at Bob’s Big Boy. Director Lisa Hurwitz opens a window to the past for audiences. One that reminds us of what makes this country as beautiful and eclectic as it is. With the voices of some of The Automat‘s favorite customers, the likes of Mel Brooks, Elliott Gould, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Colon Powell sit down to tell us what made the restaurant so special. Explaining not only why they loved it but the cultural impact it had. Modern companies should take their cues from Horn & Hardart. These men had principles that carried from generation to generation, written from the very beginning. Not only did they mass produce fresh food, but they also made sure it tasted just right, using seasonal ingredients to keep the costs down. A nickel got you good, cheap, quality food during the hardest of times. The Automat is the perfect metaphor for New York City. All ages, races, religions, and economic stations mingled and ate together without a second thought. This dream of entrepreneurship is as American as the apple pie slices served at The Automat. I, for one, hope that spirit comes roaring back, sooner rather than later. The Automat is an exquisite time capsule and a history lesson wrapped in documentary form. You won’t be able to keep a smile off your face while watching.
Cate Marquis In Lisa Hurwitz’s charming documentary, The Automat, a host of admirers, led by Mel Brooks, the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Colin Powell, sing the praises (literally in the case of Brooks who even composed a song for it) of a beloved, now vanished, American institution, Horn and Hardart’s Automat. The Automat was a chain of automated cafeterias that captured the hearts of the people of New York and Philadelphia, and then the rest of the country through numerous movies. This warm and fascinating documentary traces the rise and fall of the Automat, a cafeteria restaurant with a clever mechanical coin-operated system for dispensed plates of food, delicious pie or savory dishes, and what many considered the best coffee in the world. It was like a kind of vending machine, but serving fine dining in an Art Deco palace of a dining room, a place where all were welcome regardless of race or class. Lisa Hurwitz’s affectionate, bittersweet documentary is filled with many delights about this bit of lost Americana, much like the Automat itself.
Title: The Automat
Directors: Lisa Hurwitz
Release Date: February 18, 2022
Running Time: 79 minutes
Distribution Company: A Slice of Pie Productions
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin