New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “THE AUTOMAT” WARMS THE SOUL LIKE A GREAT CUP OF JOE

At first blush, the topic of a once-great food franchise from a bygone era may seem like an odd choice for a theatrically-released documentary, but THE AUTOMAT is wholly worthy of such attention. Automats were commissary-style restaurants popularized in the early part of the 20th century where a nickel could get you a cup of Joe or a ham sandwich or a slice of apple pie, all provided through self-serve kiosks. At one time, the Horn and Hardart company owned 40 of them in New York City alone, and such a cultural touchstone is why filmmakers Lisa Hurwitz and Michael Levine were drawn to the topic. Their film is nostalgic, for sure, but it is also a gentle nudging of society to embrace the feeling of connection such ‘restaurants’ once provided, an inviting place inhabited by the rich and poor alike.

Wisely, director Hurwitz and writer Levine have done their homework and their documentary is chock full of photographs, film, and testimonials about the automats that entrepreneurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart founded in 1902. The film vividly describes the entire gestalt of their enterprise, from how the food was made to its transportation all over the cities of New York and Philadelphia to the details of their ledgers. The photo collection that plays across the screen alone would make Ken Burns blush, but the film also employs several A-list celebrities to talk of their fond experiences. The range of famed fans includes Mel Brooks, Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and former Philly mayor Wilson Goode.

Each talks vividly about their experiences there and what they liked to eat. Their anecdotes are as delicious as all the foodie talk. Mel Brooks, in particular, has a lot to contribute, both funny and sweet. He even wrote a song about the automat that plays with him singing in the sound studio over the closing credits.

Many employees and executives who are still alive contribute to the oral history as well, and their witnessing of history makes THE AUTOMAT all the more enthralling. They describe all kinds of behind-the-scenes details, often humorous, like how the commissary’s famous coffee and cream trickled out of the dolphin-shaped spigots. Charming doesn’t begin to describe all the accouterments on display in the automats.  

Yet, as interesting as all the testimony is, including Elliott Gould relating how Horn and Hardart were so successful with their automats that they created stores that sold their restaurant’s beloved items as take-out, and H & H even sponsored a children’s talent show on TV, the story of the automat as the rise and fall of a business brand is the most fascinating.

Horn and Hardart were geniuses when it came to creating a way to provide good food fast to the masses and make enormous profits off of their efforts. Their playbook inspired every fast food outlet from Burger King to Starbucks, and the latter’s Howard Schultze even waxes sentimental on camera about how the automat affected him as both a child consumer and CEO running a similar business. 

Indeed, Schultze wanted his coffee shops to have the same sense of community, variety, and ‘sense of theater’ that Horn and Hardart’s automats had. In a way, his franchises are the closest thing we have to those automats today, becoming a cultural touchstone and communal gathering place, not to mention an integral part of the American vernacular. Schultze also borrowed Horn and Hardart’s penchant for cleanliness, promising the consumer a comfortable space that was practically pristine. 

The fall of Horn and Hardart’s automats makes for the final act in the doc and it’s a sad but obvious chapter in the tale. The automats couldn’t compete with rising food prices, fast-food joints being built on every corner and the exodus of the city populations to the ‘burbs. By the mid-sixties, Horn and Hardart’s automats were struggling and the film doesn’t shy away from talking turkey about all that went wrong. Still, even the darker parts of the narrative serve as a sort of sweet mourning, underlining how the automats couldn’t survive in a colder and bigger competitive set.  

THE AUTOMAT is an engaging documentary, a warm trip down memory lane, and an excellent lesson on brand-building. At one time, Horn and Hardart’s automats fed 10% of Philadelphia daily, and they did it with a good product, a fair price, and an experience that wholly enveloped the consumer. How many products, brands, restaurants, or companies can claim such these days? It would behoove filmgoers to see THE AUTOMAT, of course, but it would also be wise for business schools to make the documentary required viewing for their students.

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