Automat Documentary Serves Up Lost History

There was a time when, for the price of a nickel, diners could participate in a uniquely American food phenom.

The Automat anticipated both the worlds of fast food and “self-serve,” became a social institution, then vanished into obscurity.

Founded by entrepreneurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart in the late 1880s, their restaurant concept was novel in more ways than one. Patrons at Horn & Hardart literally inserted nickels into slots and small windows opened, revealing their selection. But more significantly, the chain enabled an egalitarianism that defied the mores of its time. When many restaurateurs were racist, sexist and xenophobic, Horn and Hardart’s venture fed millions of New Yorkers and Philadelphians of all backgrounds, eventually in 100 different locations and for more than a century—one nickel at a time.

Filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz admirably captures this forgotten cultural moment in her whimsical and edifying documentary, The Automat, which serves up an extra helping of talking heads whose lives were touched by this nutritious nickelodeon. Throughout, anecdotes and analyses come in tasty, bite-sized portions from such luminaries as filmmaker Mel Brooks, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Hurwitz’s deep dive into the history of the Automat was inspired, in part, by a Ph.D. dissertation she read while in college. Entitled “Trapped Behind the Automat: Technological Systems and the American Restaurant, 1902-1991,” the work was written by Dr. Alec Shuldiner, who now lives in Fairfax and is co-producer of the film and one of its key interviewees.

“The Automat may have served via a machine, but the experience of dining in one was very social,” Shuldiner said in a recent email. 

Given our contemporary era’s advances in AI and automation (not to mention a pandemic-born wariness of other people handling our food), it seems the Automat is primed to return (the last one shuttered in the early ‘90s). Shuldiner disagrees.

“Recent attempts to use the Automat technology to vend food… hardly even offer dining space and are focused on limiting all forms of human interaction,” said Shuldiner. “This reduces the Automat to really just another vending machine.”

He points out that elements of the Automat live on in chains like Starbucks, “where social mixing is common.” This reminds that “social mixing” is also key to the theatrical movie-going experience, which, for now, is the only way to see The Automat, and one of the best ways you could spend your nickels.

Originally published in the Pacific Sun.

By Daedalus Howell

Daedalus Howell is the writer-director of Pill Head and the upcoming Wolf Story, and author of the novels Quantum Deadline and the Late Projectionist, and the editor of the Bohemian and Pacific Sun. As a writer-filmmaker he creates and examines storytelling as an art, business and lifestyle. If you're in, or interested in the trade, sign up for his newsletter below. Learn how he went from small-town newspaperman to a feature film director here.

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