review – the automat

This documentary is about the rise and fall of the Horn and Hardart “Automat” chain of restaurants.  Although they only had locations in Philadelphia and New York City, the were the BIGGEST restaurant chain in the country for several decades.  At the peak of their popularity, they sold more food than any current fast-food chain does today.  They sold several million pounds of food a year.  At one point, they fed 10% of the population of Philadelphia.

The restaurant chain was so popular there were television shows and movies that mentioned it and some that even filmed inside them.  There was a Broadway play that had a song about it and there’s a painting by Edward Hopper named “The Automat”.  This documentary shows scenes from several of the movies and televisions shows as well as several celebrities inside the restaurant.

They were iconic for two things.  The first thing people remember is the unique layout.  They served food like a cafeteria combined with a vending machine.  There were walls with several small windows of food.  You would put the coins into the slot next to the food you wanted.  Then the window opened, and you retrieved your food.  They served everything from pie to macaroni and cheese to baked beans to creamed spinach to steak.  

The second thing people remember is the quality of the food.  Almost everyone interviewed in this documentary talks about their favorite food.  Mel Brooks says he’s had coffee all over the world but the best coffee he’s ever had was at that restaurant which only cost a nickel.  The company had a main commissary that made a lot of the food that was then delivered to each restaurant.  The commissary had a tasting table where they frequently tasted all the food for quality.  For a few years, the stores even sold pies and other fresh food that people could take home and eat.  This was before the growth of fast-food chains so ready to eat food wasn’t common.  When people started moving to the suburbs in the 50s and 60s the number of people who came to the restaurants started to decline, so the advertising for the restaurants highlighted the quality of the food. 

This documentary has interviews with the children or grandchildren of the executives that ran the company, employees that worked there, and one of the original engineers that maintained the equipment at the restaurant and personally closed the final location that in 1991.  There’s also interviews with people that fondly remember going to the restaurant including Mel Brooks (who wrote an original song for the documentary), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, and Elliot Gould. 

Overall, I thought it was an interesting documentary.  The movie played at some film festivals for the past year and was just released on DVD and video on demand.  

I give it 8 out of 10 stars.