Actress Audrey Hepburn at an automat in 1951. Credit: Lawrence Fried / Iconic Images

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Listen to Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn interview director Lisa Hurwitz

New documentary “The Automat,” directed and produced by Lisa Hurwitz, is a nostalgia-fueled trip through the rise and fall of former Philly icon Horn & Hardart.

The company was once the country’s largest restaurant chain, according to the film, despite only having locations in Philadelphia and NYC. Founders Joe Horn and Frank Hardart were the first to successfully build on the European concept of an “automat,” and turn it into a U.S. success.

The duo opened their first Horn & Hardart outpost on June 12, 1902 at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia, a decade before their first location opened in New York City.

Automats served customers via walls of little cabinets, each framed in brass with a glass window at the front. Inside was the food — everything from Salisbury steak, liverwurst sandwiches, creamed spinach and baked beans to cheesecake and lemon meringue pie. Diners would insert a nickel or two into the coin slot, turn the knob, and the window would open, allowing them to take the plate of food that was inside.

It was fun, it was novel, and by the mid 1940s it was all the rage, feeding roughly 10% of Philadelphians, per director Hurwitz.

The film features interviews with famous automat fans like Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Carl Reiner, and Colin Powell, as well as people close to the company such as Marianne Hardart (Frank’s great-granddaughter) and John Romas, the company’s VP of engineering. Through their musings, the documentary explores the company’s role in American culture.

The automat was considered an equalizer among social classes, as Horn & Hardart’s philosophy was to serve everyone, and serve them all the same way.

Ginsburg recalls how average people would dine next to “matrons in fur.” Former Mayor Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first black mayor who served during the MOVE bombings, credits the Horn & Hardart at 15th and Market as being the place where the city’s Black political movement was born, referring to it as “a nice place where African Americans could go and feel dignified.”

Students having their lunch at automat during their school excursion, 1964 Credit: Stan Wayman / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

About feelings more than tech

The automat’s inception coincided with a moment in time when America was fascinated with machinery. Customers loved that they were greeted with a wall of little windows where food seemed to magically appear.

But there wasn’t actually much ground-breaking technology, aside from the temperature-controlled boxes. Behind the scenes, the process was not as automatic as it looked. A choreographed team of servers worked diligently to restock large drums that would spin to make it seem as though food appeared out of thin air. Regardless, from the diner’s perspective, it was a mystifying experience like no other, and that was part of the company’s allure.

The documentary’s charming interviews really drive home the point that Horn & Hardart was special because of how the company made people feel.

The culinary theater of dropping a couple nickels into a slot for a ham and cheese sandwich (both Brooks’ and Reiner’s favorite dish) was a spectacle, and Horn & Hardart’s locations in the bustling centers of Philadelphia and New York added to the romanticism of city life.

In their heyday, the decor was also stylish. Upon entering you’d be “blasted by marble,” as Powell described it. And the service had finer details not seen elsewhere. Horn & Hardart was known for its coffee — a fresh, French-style drip, which was unheard of outside of New Orleans at the time, dispensed from an ornate dolphin-shaped spout inspired by the sea monsters depicted in Italian fountains.

The automats were positioned as a technological advancement at the turn of the century, and continued to feed the masses at a low cost during the Great Depression. By World War II, Horn & Hardart’s centralized commissary kitchens could handle the scale of feeding literal armies.

After post war inflation hit, however, the company was actually losing money on every cup of coffee. When the price was finally raised, it jumped up to double — from 5 to 10 cents. This was necessary to accommodate the limitations of the coin slot machines which didn’t have the ability to take pennies, but customers experienced sticker shock.

Around the same time, families began moving out of the cities and into the suburbs. Horn & Hardart’s urban strategy was so entrenched in the brand, it was difficult for them to adapt quickly enough to respond to the changing demographics in Philadelphia and New York City.

What had initially helped the company scale inevitably contributed to its decline. The last Horn & Hardart closed in 1991.

A crowd at the automat Credit: John W. Romas Collection of Horn & Hardart Memorabilia

Lacking a modern equivalent

Watching Ginsburg and Powell reminisce about their mutual love of creamed spinach and listening to Brooks’ literally sing Horn & Hardart’s praises — he created an original musical number for the movie, called “At the Automat”‘ — might have you pining for something that’s before your time. Don’t be surprised if this documentary leaves you with some serious FOMO.

Where can you find traces of Horn & Hardart’s influence?

Hurwitz attempts to answer this question through interviews with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. He talks about the “theater, excitement, surprise, and delight” of the automat, and how he tries to recreate that experience at Starbucks.

And while you might think that Horn & Hardart’s processes played a role in influencing fast food, this documentary makes it clear several experts don’t believe that. The automat was different from fast food, they say: it was an experience that was distinct.

It’s hard to believe that all that remains of the automats are a few references in Looney Tunes and some Art Deco signs that still hang above the buildings they used to inhabit.

A spot called Automat Kitchen opened in Jersey City last year, but it already appears to be closed. In 2017, a family tried to revive the brand name with a new coffee company, which no longer appears to be active.

Horn & Hardart has lived on in Philadelphia with a much more mundane role: it’s the “coffee can of destiny” from which ballot positions are pulled for municipal elections.

But for anyone seeking that rare mix of glamour and camaraderie, the best option is to go check out the film.

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Kae Lani Palmisano

Kae Lani is an Emmy Award-Winning television host, food and travel writer, recipe developer and home cook, seen on WHYY/PBS, FOX, and day time talk shows across the U.S. Her writing has been published...