Audrey Hepburn in The Automat

"The Automat"

February 23, 2022
Thomas Smith

Imagine an automatic restaurant. So-called automats thrived in the U.S. from 1912 to 1991 and they were so much more than just buildings with vending machines. The film Automat features compelling interviews from celebrity once-regulars — including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and actor/comedian Mel Brooks — to help tell the story of the rise, blossoming and fall of the company responsible for inspiring wonder and catering to notions of social equity in foodservice.

Automat follows the company Horn and Hardart and examines how the automat business model progresses through myriad shifts in U.S. culture. Viewers will be captivated by the way this film hooks audiences with elements of mystery then gradually reveals the nuances of how a restaurant chain could serve as a model of diversity. Horn and Hardart proudly provided high-quality low-cost cuisine to Americans regardless of gender, race, or socio-economic status. It is especially interesting to see how no required knowledge of English or restaurant interactions leads to the meteoric rise in automat popularity among new-to-America immigrants and new-to-the-workforce women. In the grandiose dining rooms of Horn and Hardart, everyone was welcome to share an all-American meal with a touch of luxury.

The film also explores the lives of Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who set out to build a right-minded company while valuing loyalty to employees and inclusivity for customers. It is a story that encapsulates U.S. culture throughout the 1900’s while portraying how those changes cause an equitable business model to go out of style. Whether you have fond memories of buying food from behind a window of wonder or this article is your first time hearing about the chain, Automat is a joy to watch for anyone. [screening time and location tbd]