1:46 PM / Tuesday March 21, 2023

5 Nov 2021

Nostalgia and Nickels

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November 5, 2021 Category: Entertainment Posted by:

In the new documentary ‘The Automat,’ filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz gives us a glimpse into the food, family and culture that made up the Horn and Hardart cafeteria.

By Denise Clay-Murray

Since I’ve lived and worked in Philadelphia over the last 20-plus years, I’ve probably walked by the building at 818 Chestnut Street dozens of times.

It’s a nice building. Art deco. Historic, like many of the buildings in Philadelphia. No big deal.

But after watching one of the closing films of the 30th Philadelphia Film Festival, I’ll probably look at that building, the site of the first Horn and Hardart cafeteria, a little differently.

I mean, if Mel Brooks liked the coffee and former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode tells you that this was one of the spaces where the movement for Black political power in the city took shape, you kinda have to, right?

The new film “The Automat” tells the story of the Horn and Hardart cafeterias that got their start in Philadelphia, had locations in New York, and promised a full meal including drinks and dessert for the cost of a roll of nickels. 

Founded in 1902 by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, the Horn and Hardart Automats promised — and according to those interviewed, delivered — a quality meal in a classy setting for a small price. Its heyday coincided with the advent of women in the workforce, the Great Depression and other movements.

The last Horn and Hardart closed in New York in 1991 due to a combination of factors ranging from changes in taste and the expenses that led to the company selling much of its real estate to fast food chains like Burger King.

Filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz was inspired to make her documentary, which she financed through a Kickstarter campaign, by the cafeterias she enjoyed hanging out in in college and that enthusiasm for the project comes through in the film.

Featuring interviews with members of Horn’s and Hardart’s families, former employees of the company and their relatives, and notables including Goode, Brooks, comedian and writer Carl Reiner, late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Starbucks co-founder Howard Schultz, the story of the Automat and its democratic nature comes through. 

That said, it leans heavily on the New York end of the Horn and Hardart experience, despite the chain’s founding in Philadelphia. While the stories of families like Powell’s being able to enjoy a meal at the Automat at a time when integrated settings weren’t necessarily the norm, I would have liked to hear more stories from the Philadelphia residents that called the Automats home. When I told my friends that I was going to a screening of this film, many of them told me stories about going to Horn and Hardart with their grandparents for lunch while shopping in downtown Philadelphia. I would have liked to see those stories on screen.

“The Automat,” which includes an original song performed by Mel Brooks that waxes eloquently about the coffee served at Horn and Hardart, is currently being screened around the country. For more information on where to see it, go to:

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