“The Automat” is a documentary about the rise and demise of what was America’s first chain restaurant Horn & Hardart. But is it also about how its inclusiveness and high-quality foods influenced the perceptions of many Americans.
Do you go back that far to remember what an automat is? It is a restaurant where all the dishes are in a little box with a window. Pop your coins in and open the window and take out your dish. I have a foggy memory about this style of restaurant and seem to recall eating at one HH restaurant in New York and some automats in Europe. They were born in Germany and the concept was fine tuned in Philadelphia and New York with the first HH restaurant opening in 1912 and closing of the last in 1991.
Unlike the fast-food restaurants of today that purvey poor quality and often unhealthy food in barren and antiseptic settings HH had luxury to it with beautifully designed restaurants and served a wide variety of quality dishes. Working women flooding to work in New York could feel safe eating there. African Americans, like a young Colin Powell could eat there segregation free and it inspired him to create an inclusive US army. Ruth Bader Ginsberg ate there as a young girl and her anti-discriminatory beliefs were partially shaped by the inclusiveness of HH which had automats in New York and Philadelphia. Immigrants felt very American at HH and could eat for a modest price all without having to converse in English. Howard Shultz the CEO of Starbucks relates a story of how as a 10-year-old boy visiting Radio City Music Hall in New York then going for a slice of apple pie to HH. Fascinated by the food in the little compartments shaped his vision of Starbucks and he has a picture of an HH restaurant hanging in his office.
Much of this documentary is narrated by comedian Mel Brooks a huge fan of HH who soulfully describes his trips into New York to visit HH where with a Brooksian sense of humour he adds a huge dose of sincerity about HH. The documentary could have easily fallen into the “so-so” fact laden documentary but Brooks and a restaurant historian, the well-known actors, bus boys, former HH executives and family members assembled by director Lisa Hurwitz make this a “WOW WOW” documentary and it slides around your consciousness like a bowl of HH creamed spinach.
HH was in many ways a reflection of the industrialization of the United States emphasizing speed and efficiency but never sacrificing quality. Just to hear some of those interviewed wax about their favourite dishes is enough to make you want to time travel.
Why the demise of HH? It might very well have been the explosive growth of the suburbs as urban based life migrated to the suburbs. It was also the rising cost of food causing HH to raise its beloved coffee from 5 to 10 cents. Eventually fast-food restaurants plunged a dagger into HH’s heart. Many neighbourhoods where HH restaurants were located began to decline attracting vagrants.
You are in for a satisfying ride with this documentary. You’ll move from fascination, inspiration and humour into chagrin with the loss is not so much about a restaurant but a way of life. In today’s wall of fast-food sub mediocrity we could use an automat or two.
You can catch the trailer here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWNkIsLEny4
The documentary rolls out starting February 18th in Canada but keep an eye out for in your locale.
RKS Film Rating 96/100.