At the Horn & Hardart Automat, a customer could obtain a cup of coffee by sliding a nickel into a thin brass slot and pulling a lever below it, allowing a steady stream of chicory-blended coffee to pour from a dolphin’s mouth (though some argued it looked more like a lion’s head) into a thick, porcelain cup. If one blinked, they would miss the thin stream of milk that trickled into the cup from an unseen spout.
That 5-cent cup of coffee became emblematic of the Automat, a cafeteria-style restaurant that boomed in Philadelphia and New York in the early and mid-20th century: affordable, tasty and downright enchanting.
Though the last of the 157 Horn & Hardart establishments closed its doors in 1991, its legacy lives on in the minds of many who visited the restaurant and, most recently, in “The Automat,” a documentary by Jewish filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz.
The documentary will be screened at the 30th annual Philadelphia Film Festival on Oct. 23 at 9:30 a.m. at the Bourse and on Oct. 31 at 1:15 p.m. at the Film Center.
Horn & Hardart’s business model was unique in the U.S. Borrowing German technologies, the Automat used a waiter-less, vending machine-style model. In exchange for a couple of nickels, one could buy a meal consisting of an amalgamation of dishes pulled out of small, temperature-controlled, glass-doored cubbies. Baked beans, macaroni and cheese, salisbury steak and strawberry rhubarb pie were menu favorites.
But Hurwitz argues that the restaurant’s magic transcended the magic of its physical operation.
“The Automat” captures the essence of the Horn & Hardart establishments through the eyes of those who experienced the restaurants firsthand: Brooklynite comedian Mel Brooks, with a near-photographic memory of his cross-bureau trips to the Manhattan Automats in the 1930s; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who remarked on the automat’s hallmark commitment to serving everyone who walked through their doors, regardless of race, class or gender; and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose rare family outings to a restaurant were defined by Horn & Hardart’s affordable, yet high-quality service.
Though neither founders Joseph Horn nor Frank Hardart were Jewish, Hurwitz insists that the restaurant is a touchstone for American Jews.
“Jews just love the Automat,” Hurwitz said.
With inexpensive, tasty food and a business principle of not turning anyone away, Horn & Hardart mirrored the values held by the many Jewish immigrants it served.
“I really love how they took care of people; they were offering something that was good for people,” Hurwitz said. “They were like a model company.”
Hurwitz’s interest in Horn & Hardart epitomizes the lasting interest in the establishment.
Through her years eating at her college dining hall at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, Hurwitz developed a fascination with cafeteria food and culture, something she was deprived of while eating lunch from kosher food trucks at her Jewish day school while growing up in Los Angeles.
Several trips to the library to learn more about cafeterias led Hurwitz to stumble upon the history of the Automat, which snowballed into an idea for a documentary that Hurwitz began working on after graduating in 2013.
She quickly became familiar with the establishment’s loyal following among those who visited the Automats, fueling her to bring the film to fruition.
“It’s kind of ironic because one of the most amazing parts about the Automat was this social element — how people sat at communal tables and just hung out there; it was a great meeting place,” Hurwitz said. “This film became a great meeting place for me, and that was what drove me to keep pushing and pushing over eight years.”
Though many remember the coffee and pie from Horn & Hardart, Hurwitz contends that it was really the social component that made Horn & Hardart a memorable and lasting institution.
The experience of the Automat is what inspired Starbucks founder Howard Schultz to bring “theater and romance” to his coffee shop experience.
Though it inspired future business models, the Automat remains unparalleled, Hurwitz said.
In the film, Hurwitz poses a question to architectural dealer Steve Stollman about whether something similar to the Automat exists today. Stollman said no — and Hurwitz agrees.
“People are always pushing; they want me to say that these modern-day vending machine restaurants, these automatic restaurants or whatever, are like modern-day incarnations of the Automat,” Hurwitz said, “And I don’t feel that they are, because it was really about the environment.”
But Hurwitz is at peace with the Automat’s finite lifespan. Within the story of the Horn & Hardart Automat, there’s a lesson about the impermanence of some things, no matter
“Sometimes we have to let things go,” Hurwitz said. “We can’t save everything. Things don’t always last forever.”
The Philadelphia Film Festival runs from Oct. 20-31. The schedule and tickets for the film festival are available at filmadelphia.org.
[email protected]; 215-832-0741