Horn & Hardart’s The Automat was a chain of self-serve restaurants in Philadelphia and New York City, and although only in those two cities, “in its day and for many decades it was the largest restaurant chain in America,” Automat historian Alec Schuldiner informs viewers. The first Automat opened in Philadelphia on June 12, 1902 and the last Automat closed in New York, April 1991. Director Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary tells “how it began, how it blossomed, how it ended,” as Mel Brooks states in the film’s opening.
Brooks is hysterical. He has so many questions for Hurwitz about the project and suggestions about how it should be done that he guides its direction. Schuldiner, The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece authors Marianne Hardart (great granddaughter of a co-founder) and Lorraine Diehl, along with former employees and their family members talk about the inspirations for the company and how it operated.
Hurwitz also covers sociological aspects, from how women in the workforce in the 1920s helped lead to the company’s success, to how changes in the public’s habits, preferences for fast food restaurants and families moving out of the cities to the suburbs, contributed to its decline. Other factors for the latter include the loss of almost half their coffee sales when they doubled the price of their nickel cup of coffee because the distribution machines couldn’t take pennies, bad management decisions, and the homeless frequenting the place. But during its heyday, they made fans of interviewees Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliot Gould, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz whose company takes inspiration from the Automat.
The extras are:
- Audio commentary by director Lisa Hurwitz
- Audio Introduction by Mel Brooks (2 min)
- Extended Interview with Mel Brooks (55 min)
- Horn and Hardart Archival Footage (13 min)
The Automat is a wonderful piece of Americana. While those who had the good fortune to eat at one of the establishments will most appreciate the trip down memory lane, Hurwitz has created an accessible film filled with interviewees whose delightful remembrances are infectious and jealousy-inducing.