Before our burgeoning fast-casual dining climate took hold, and before fast-food fever swept over the nation during the 1950s (continuing its dominance through today), Americans of all classes sat together eating meat loaf blue-plate specials and strawberry shortcakes in the original arbiter of convenient dining: the automat. If they lived in New York City or Philadelphia, chances are they ate at Horn & Hardart, which opened its first outpost in 1902, and closed its last — on 42nd Street — in 1991. (Way back in 2006, an outfit called BAMN! attempted to bring back the automat on St. Marks Place, but the lackluster revival succumbed in 2009.) Now there’s a documentary being made about Horn & Hardart, its meteoric rise (at one point, it was the world’s largest restaurant chain, feeding over half a million people per day) and meandering but noble conclusion.
Through her aptly named production company, A Slice of Pie Productions, director and producer Lisa Hurwitz recently released a trailer for the film, which chronicles the restaurant’s history via interviews with culinary historians, descendants of founders Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, former employees, and patrons, including candor from actor Elliott Gould. Hurwitz describes the automat as the “Ellis Island of restaurants,” where cheap, well-prepared food became the equalizer between the upper crust and crust-less. With no real waitstaff, patrons were allowed to sit more or less indefinitely, which made these establishments a beacon for the homeless, who would often nurse cups of hot water doctored with lemon or ketchup (for makeshift tomato soup, in the case of the latter).
The larger implications of Horn & Hardart’s rise — its influence on the modern restaurant industry, and replacement by the fast-food industry — fascinate Hurwitz, who’s compiled nostalgic anecdotes to offer the most complete picture of one of the greatest food phenomena of the previous century.
Hurwitz goes a step further, citing parallels between today’s income inequality and that of the early twentieth century. As much as the film informs and entertains, there’s also a clear call to action for communal dining across socioeconomic strata. The difference between now and then is that the automat’s egalitarian delivery system made this possible, whereas modern fast food produces subpar products.
When culinary historians spin yarns about CEOs clinking coffee cups with buskers, the implication is that this was only possible because automat food was both cheap and well prepared. Horn & Hardart kitchens cooked everything from scratch daily, and we champion those same ideals today. Just look at the fast-casual market, where new concepts launch constantly and chefs such as Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson are getting into the game with their forthcoming Loco’l restaurant brand, a company devoted to offering affordable, chef-driven food. Only time will tell if the fast-casual format is indeed the king of convenience dining — a return to the ideals of the automat after decades spent abusing ourselves with fast food.
Hurwitz is quick to point out that so many people have cherished memories of their experiences at Horn & Hardart — a personal connection that’s missing from the fast-food industry. Not that Double Downs or Wawa locations don’t have their ardent fans, but when was the last time you saw someone light up about the sandwich they picked up from that rest-stop Roy Rogers?
Watch the trailer below and check out the project’s Kickstarter, which still has a little over a week left to go.