Good food for the people...
Good food for the people... The Automat, Seattle Jewish Film Festival

Utopias are easier to find in the past than they are in the future. This, I think, is the source of The Automat's greatness. The Lisa Hurwitz-directed documentary, which impressively runs at this year's Seattle Jewish Film Festival, is about a possibility that has already been realized—and it is the nature of time that makes the past more real than the future.

The possibility was expressed by a 20th-century American business model for selling meal items through vending machines with small glass doors that popped open with a slot-inserted nickel. The vending machines lined the walls of eateries that were often palatial in size. You could find real food in these machines, which, though requiring engineers to design and operate, were not automatic or serviced by robots. You just did not see the workers. They were on the other side. They rushed back and forth small plates of sweet pies, meat pies, clam chowder, Salisbury steak, and creamed spinach. The utopia here was each plate, though costing only a nickel, wasn't fast food. This is why the often-made claim that the Automat was the first fast food (meaning, junk food) chain is misleading.

A good part of what made the real food/real affordability of the Automat possible was urban concentration. This was the model that its Philadelphia-based founders Joseph V. Horn and Frank Hardart established with the first Automat in 1902. If distribution was centralized in dense areas, costs could be kept low and a close relationship between farm and vending machines maintained. All of this worked well until America decided to move to the suburbs.

The great Mel Brooks drinking a great cup of coffee at an Automat.
The great Mel Brooks drinking a great cup of coffee at an Automat. Automat, Seattle Jewish Film Festival

Mel Brooks, the star of this documentary (contributions by Starbucks' Howard Schultz and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are to be honest, a bit dry), recalls the wonderfully gaudy interiors of the Automats of Manhattan, the absence of tipping, and the ladies in the nickel booths. But all of this is just nostalgia. What's of great importance to the historian/philosopher of capitalism is the early appearance (1902, the Belle Époque) of a form of mass production that supplied things like really good coffee, which, at the Automat, flowed from the mouths of copper dolphins inspired by the monsters of Italian fountains. Brooks even claims that the best coffee he has ever tasted was found at Horn & Hardart Automat.

The rise of the suburbs, which posited the car, came, in the 1950s, with the rise of fast food proper. Decentralization caused by space-consuming single-family homes meant that a good part of a fast food company's profits had to be squeezed out of the food. This social and cultural transformation resulted in the end of a utopia, that was, as the documentary reveals, much less white than the suburbs. The late Colin Powell, who was raised in New York City, explains in the documentary that the Automat was the only restaurant experience that his black family had access to. (He fondly recalls the Salisbury steak.)

The Automat utopia was, then, urban, the potential of density, the efficiency of public transportation, and consumer centralization. The Automat, as designed by Horn and Hardart and their cooks and engineers, failed to adopt junk food at a speed that would have made them competitive with car-centric McDonald's and Burger Kings. The last Horn & Hardart Automat closed in April 1991. And what replaced this form of enterprise was not so much fast-food chains, which are actually vanishing within the city, but, after the rise of urbanism in the 1980s, and the return of white Americans to the urban core at the turn of the millennium, was restaurants that made you pay through the nose for locally grown, grass-fed food.

You can see The Automat in-person on Sunday March 27 and online on Monday March 28 through the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, which runs from March 24 to April 30. Find other suggested events by The Stranger right here.