I never had the opportunity to eat at an automat, but they were a fascinating part of our American urban culture. The closest I ever got was the cafeteria, which is a rarity in America now. After the pandemic, try to even find a buffet.
Lisa Hurwitz is the originator and director of The Automat (2021). Fate put her onto Mel Brooks, who frequently ate at an automat in New York City. He provides the opening narration, was pursaded to write a song, and offered a wealth of memories about his experiences at the automat. Brooks told her to interview Carl Reiner, who was glad to share. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is also interviewed, as well as Colin Powell, talked about the diversity of people who gathered, which was unlike other restaurants of the time.
For many, the automat was the only restaurant experience these working class people could afford. H&H was famous for their coffee, the five-cent cup of coffee. In the post-War years, the first sign of decline was when the company began charging ten cents, in order to make up for the cost of the coffee; they were losing money on it. Coffee sales immediately fell by half.
The film focuses on Horn & Hardart (H&H), which was the largest restaurant chain in America at the time, but it was in only two cities, in addition to the food processing operation. The draw was their service and their coffee. The automat idea came from Germany; H&H imported the machine for their Philadelphia restaurant, then improved on the technology.
According to the film, the automat embraced the immigrant population, no common language was needed and immigrants were hungry for American food. Immigrants lived in the central city, most did before the great exodus to the suburbs. Women were now in the workforce, and the growth of the office environment brought waves of hungry workers.
Originally, H&H restaurants were lovely, artistic places, full of brass and ornate finishes borrowed from European architecture. All kinds of people felt comfortable there and rubbed shoulders. For not much money, nickels, one could get a good meal. The secret was a central commissary which prepared the food for the restaurants. Fresh daily, and inexpensive. They fed a lot of people during the Great Depression.
It was only later, when business slowed as the character of the city changed that the restaurants began to look tired. Management changes in the early 1960s diverted the company from their core values as they chased profitability. Many locations would be converted to other types of restaurants, mainly fast food franchises. H&H would own 200 franchises, quite a different experience.
The dispensing machines, the glass compartments holding a serving of a food item, are the heart of the automat. You inserted your coins that unlocked the little glass door, and you took your pie or meatloaf or baked potato.
Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, also remembered the excitement and wonderment he experienced as a boy going to his first automat across from Radio City Music Hall, and told how that incredible feeling of discovery was what he wanted customers to experience at Starbucks.
Horn & Hardart was a large company of automats, cafeterias and food processing. They provided food for troop ships going to Europe. The company enjoyed great success with multiple locations in NYC and Philadelphia, until people left the inner cities for the suburbs. The high volume of business had kept the prices low, but when foot traffic declined, starting in the 1960s, the business model stopped working. The film also talks about the recession of the 1970s and great influx of homeless persons who began replacing customers.
Advertising campaigns in those later years emphasized the quality and low cost of the food, tried to offset the lack of atmosphere at a time when inner cities did not have a great reputation. The days of the Italian architecture, fancy fixtures and mix of high class customers had passed.
Hurwitz was able to connect with and interview members of the Horn and Hardart families, former employees, customers, and those who worked on advertising campaigns and building architects. The stories are delightful, the experiences related vividly recreate a different time in America. Film was located and digitized, photos from scrapbooks and even from Facebook fans.
For most of us, the automat is only from old movies and history books. Horn & Hardart is like Sears & Roebucks, Woolworths, Montgomery Wards, ghosts of America past.
Hurwitz’s film is fun, informative and a bit sad. I first watched the film listening to the commentary, which gave me great insight; then I watched the film in regular mode.