The Automat

The food service Mel Brooks, Elliott Gould, and other old geezers got to try.

The first thing Mel Brooks asks as he is being interviewed in “The Automat” is “Why are you asking about it now?” Because director Lisa Hurwitz and writer Michael Levine want us to acknowledge that very few people still remember it and many people haven’t even heard of it. I’ve never even heard of it, so what is the automat?

The automat was a vending machine that offered fresh cooked meals. You just put a nickel in the slot, you open the door, and you pull the meal or dessert you want to have out. Like a dumbwaiter. And it even served coffee through its Dolphin’s head spout, inspired by the Italian fountains.

Joseph Horn was looking for restaurant opportunities by going on a cross-country search, until he found the perfect plan. But first, he needed the perfect partner to pull it off, and that perfect partner happened to be Frank Hardart. Of course, the automat wasn’t invented yet, but they have opened a few restaurants.

Frank found out about the automats in Germany, and they both decided to create the first one in America. They opened it up in Philadelphia, and expanded to New York. Their business name would be known as Horn & Hardart, although Horn chose Philly over NY.

To pull off the automat, they needed chief engineer John Fritsche to develop the machines to make them serve hot and cold foods, which were called drums, while changing the coin slot system.

Even during the Great Depression, this restaurant was kindhearted to the poor, especially since their goods cost 5 cents. This was also beneficial for Mel Brooks, back when he was poor. We also get Carl Reiner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elliott Gould, and even the decedents of Horn & Hardart praising the food and quality.

This was even successful during WWII, as troops required the company to get enough food-a cavalcade of food-for them. Everyone-fighting or not-deserved to have all the delicious food it provided at an economical price. “Food Glorious Food!”

However, as restaurant competition began to emerge, the Automat bumped the price of a cup of coffee from 5 cents to 10 cents. The results were disastrous, and threatened the foundation that the restaurant stood for. Fallen geniuses, more restaurants, and society would even close up the joint. It’s really quite sad if you really look at it through the old timers’ perspectives.

There are moments that kept me away from this doc, because they weren’t as compelling or interesting as how the Automat went up and then gone. But for the most part, Hurwitz and Levine both capture its most important elements and examples of how well this food serviced worked. It also runs for over an hour, and Brooks mentions how its timeframe has to be over an hour in order to qualify for theatrical release. A short as it is, it offers almost everything today’s generation needs to know about the machine and its impact.

I wish I could experience this device, too, but today, we have to deal with too many QuickChek and 7Eleven franchises that don’t even look like they could top the Automat. This wouldn’t be considered a fast food joint, because it wasn’t about speed; it was about quality. This doc is a wake-up call for people who deserve the best food quality.

Spoiler Alert: stick around for the end credits to hear Mel Brooks sing his new song “(There Was Nothing Like The Coffee) At The Automat.” It’s beyond touching and uplifting.

Rating: 3 out of 4.

Premieres This Weekend at the Film Forum in NYC.

Categories: Documentary

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