The film company that made “The Automat” is called A Slice of Pie Productions. That would be a great name under any circumstances. For this particular movie, it’s better than ice cream for breakfast. Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary is a very loving tribute to the fabled Horn & Hardart restaurant chain, which flourished in New York and Philadelphia for much of the 20th century.
The Automat was “the house that nickels built.” Customers would be presented with an array of dining choices, each visible behind a set of small, gridded glass doors. They were like cubbyholes for cuisine. Customers fed their coins into a slot next to the door, pulled a small knob, and took out their purchase. Among the many bits of Automat-iana the documentary provides is that the knobs were called “turn buttons” — and the cashiers who provided change were known as “nickel throwers.” “That was the great thing about the Automat,” says Mel Brooks, a big fan. “You needed a lot of nickels. You didn’t need a lot of money.”
The Automat was a formula made in 20th-century heaven: technology meets efficiency meets abundance meets democracy (people of all backgrounds went there). What could be more American? As it happens, the idea originated in Germany. That simply added another American element: immigration.
Underscoring how much a part of the general culture it became, Hurwitz includes numerous clips of references to the Automat from various Hollywood movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. For a time, the restaurants were as big a New York tourist attraction as the Statue of Liberty. “The slot-machine lunch,” as one newspaper called the Automat, was as American as apple pie. You could buy that there, too, of course.
At Horn & Hardart’s height, it was the largest restaurant chain in the United States — and this despite being in just those two cities — with 800,000 people a day eating there. The food wasn’t fancy but neither was it chopped liver (so to speak). Popular menu items included creamed spinach, baked beans, meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, Salisbury steak, ham and cheese sandwiches, and many pies, not just apple.
Brooks and the late Carl Reiner, who’s also interviewed, speak of the pies with special reverence. Brooks’s favorite was the coconut custard pie, Reiner’s the chocolate pudding pie. Who knew there was such a thing (and that it was seasonal)? Also interviewed are the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a fan of the creamed spinach) and the late Colin Powell. The last Automat closed in 1991, and the Horn & Hardart heyday was the ‘20 and ‘30s, so onetime patrons aren’t young. Others heard from include former Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode, actor Elliott Gould, and Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks.
Schultz says Horn & Hardart — with its emphasis on quality, affordability, and a pleasant atmosphere — was a model for what he wanted Starbucks to be. “I always had the Automat in my mind’s eye,” he says.
There’s a further connection between Starbucks and the Automat: coffee. One of the cofounders, Frank Hardart, preferred New Orleans-style brew. That’s what the Automat would serve. As much as automation, the coffee would be the chain’s calling card. Its importance was highlighted by how it was dispensed, from dolphin-headed spouts. The spouts were in keeping with other luxe touches: marble tabletops, lots of chrome.
What undid Horn & Hardart were the trends that transformed America in the years after World War II: suburbanization, growing affluence, inflation. The Automat was efficient food. It wasn’t fast food. Fast food was what America wanted. When the last Automat closed, Burger King took over the site.
Hurwitz takes a terrific subject and treats it with undisguised, and justified, affection. What’s most impressive about “The Automat” is how much ground it covers. In addition to the famous names noted above, we hear from former employees, social historians, even the great-grandson of one of the cofounders. There’s a wealth of news footage and period photographs. We get to see old Automat equipment that’s been rescued from the junkyard.
The one real shortcoming is the score, which lays things on a bit thick. That’s OK, though, since musical redemption comes at the very end. With full orchestral accompaniment, Brooks performs a song he has written as a tribute to Horn & Hardart coffee. Documentaries tend not to have stars. This one does, and his name is Mel Brooks. Get that man a slice of coconut custard pie. He’s earned it.
A live Q&A with director Lisa Hurwitz follows the 2 p.m. screening on Sunday, May 15.
Directed by Lisa Hurwitz. Written by Michael Levine. At Coolidge Corner. 79 minutes. Unrated (best not seen on an empty stomach).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.