Did you ever go to an Automat? The last one in NYC closed at 42nd Street and Third Avenue in 1991 but, from 1912 through the 1950s, the Automats were all the rage throughout the city and hung on for a few decades after that. Now there is a film in the works to document the history and success of this unique restaurant/cafeteria chain, appropriately titled “The Automat,” and the producers are conducting a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise money to complete the film.
It is hard to quite imagine in today’s society what the Automats were like, why they mattered and were such a success in a classy and communal way — which is the point of the film to tell the story.
The New York Public Library web site sums it up nicely: “The last of them shut down in 1991, but nobody who dropped a nickel in the slot ever forgot the Automat, and the name still resonates as a beloved fixture of New York culture.”
The filmmakers need to make their goal of $50,000 by Monday, March 16th at 12 a.m. You can support the film here.
More on the Automat phenomenon:
Automat via Wikipedia:
Originally, the machines in U.S. automats took only nickels. In the original format, a cashier would sit in a change booth in the center of the restaurant, behind a wide marble counter with five to eight rounded depressions in it. The diner would insert the required number of coins in a machine and then lift a window, which was hinged at the top, to remove the meal, which was generally wrapped in waxed paper. The machines were filled from the kitchen behind. All or most New York automats also had a cafeteria-style steam table where patrons could slide a tray along rails and choose foods, which were ladled out of steaming tureens.
In its heyday, recipes were kept in a safe, and described how to place the food on the plate as well as how to make it. The automats were popular with a wide variety of patrons, including Walter Winchell, Irving Berlin and other celebrities of the era. The New York automats were popular with out of work songwriters and actors. Playwright Neil Simon called automats “the Maxim’s of the disenfranchised” in a 1987 article.
“Lunch Hour” from the New York Public Library:
The Automat was one of the wonders of New York. When Joe Horn and Frank Hardart opened their magnificent flagship on July 2, 1912—a two-story facade of stained glass, marble floors, and ornate carved ceilings, right in the middle of Times Square—the city was instantly captivated. Hungry? Drop a nickel in a slot, open the door to your chosen compartment, and pull your dish right out — a modern miracle! Sandwiches, hot dishes, and desserts were all freshly made, and the coffee was said to be the best in New York. By the 1940s there were Automat restaurants all over the city. Children and tourists adored them, office workers depended on them, retirees gathered in them, and New Yorkers with nothing to spend on lunch stirred free ketchup into hot water and called it soup.
Despite their charm, the famous machines were not solely responsible for the Automat’s popularity. Beginning in 1919 every Automat restaurant included a cafeteria; in fact, many of Horn & Hardart’s restaurants were only cafeterias, with no machines at all. What made H&H the most successful restaurant operation in the country was a commitment to excellent food, low prices, and handsome surroundings.
But the all-day crowds that swarmed the Automat began to disappear in the 1950s as city dwellers moved to the suburbs and many office buildings opened their own cafeterias. At the same time, food and labor costs soared, and the city closed a loophole that had allowed cafeteria customers to avoid sales tax. H&H was forced to raise prices, quality declined, and the once-resplendent restaurants grew seedy. The last of them shut down in 1991, but nobody who dropped a nickel in the slot ever forgot the Automat, and the name still resonates as a beloved fixture of New York culture.
As an interviewee in the “The Automat” Kickstarter trailer says, “The Automat led the way to fast food but the Automat did it in such a different spirit – with the emphasis on good food.”
The filmmakers write:
What started as a shared fascination with cafeterias and their culture, has turned into an incredible educational journey. As we dive deeper into the archives and hear stories told by people who experienced Horn and Hardart’s restaurants first hand we appreciate more and more what we once had but have since lost.
The Automat is a project already two years in the making, with hundreds of hours of interviews and archival research behind us. We are seeking funding to complete shooting of the documentary film and to begin post-production work.
Help the filmmakers bring this unique story to fruition!
Visit and support “The Automat” Kickstarter campaign by Monday, March 16th at 12 a.m.