The Automat: The Democratic Design of the American Diner

Good design must solve problems. The American Problem is figuring out the fastest way to consume food. The Automat was the perfect solution: wall-to-wall vending machines that serve food through a coin-operated door. It is an elegant, egalitarian, and especially American design chiefly because of the total democratization of the eating experience. Horn & Hardart served everyone equally: for a nickel, the poor and the rich ate together in large, clean open spaces. The new Seattle-produced documentary covers the predominantly East Coast eating culture, drawing its influence back to modern brands like Starbucks while showing that there’s also nothing quite like this anymore.

The Automat succeeds on one hand by featuring a quirky experience of the nostalgic past and highlighting the families of its proprietors and fails on the other hand in not having any true mission statement. The actual reason for its existence is succinct: to memorialize an object and space of cultural affection before those memories are gone and we are left only with the material remains of the subject. The choice of participants is specific. Family members put on their rose-colored glasses and say good things about their family business. Celebrities — okay, just Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, so everyone you could want — reminisce about their time spent together at the establishments, guessing each other’s favorite dishes, and genuinely just being documentary beauties who know how to entertain in any format. It would be condescending from anyone else but you want Mel Brooks to break the fourth wall and tell the documentarian how her project will go, what to do with it, and why his footage is important (he is funny and still popular). This is why they required New Yorkers for this Very New York Brand. Also included are Colin Powell and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. They both ate there because it was a rare space in their time where people of all kinds were accepted.

So, the talking heads roll out with easy affections for the past. The documentary is mostly just interested in this sentimentalizing of the space so it lets them talk and ramble, even sometime inanely, about how nice it was just to pull an apple pie from a vending machine. You get the same notes over and over. Everyone loved the diverse melting pot of the space and the ease of use and low cost. We do not need to honor him but at least Howard Schultz proves that the space holds a meaningful influence over his life: when he was a young boy his aunt took him to New York and he grabbed a pie from the shelf and thought it was absolute magic. This is a bit of businessman pretension but ever since, Schultz has tried to embody Starbucks with the very same spirit and integrity of user experience as the Automat he loved as a young boy. He keeps a picture of it up in his office to remind him of how wondrous the story-telling process of retrieving food can be. This bears mentioning as this model that has most supplanted the Automat now looks to shift away from communal spaces and move towards simple efficiency, as Starbucks has recently announced. Even the successor to the idea of the Automat is now a dying breed. There is little room for community left in the modern invention, which now prizes individualism over a shared experience.

Besides primarily making room for the rich to tell their stories about how these spaces are evenly for everyone, the film also suffers from its narrow politics. We might agreeably say the film does not have any intended politics. It just hosts people who want to tell you how they loved getting food from a box. But there are implicit politics involved in any work. Here, the film does nothing to counter or push against poorly thought-out rhetoric against unions and doesn’t seem to engage with the several very negative depictions of unhoused populations in the interviewees’ stories. A documentary needs to have a perspective and The Automat does not take accountability for its presentation.

What works in the documentary is Lisa Hurwitz’s crisp light-footedness as director. It moves quickly and while the contents are repetitive, we’re given a broad view of what it was like. At points you can feel the art deco environment with the clean white marble tables and large pillars holding up this American institution, you can experience every gaudy detail and begin to understand why coffee tastes better poured from a small wall sculpture modeled after some statue in Italy or why seeing the pie you want to eat is so much better than seeing a menu. As modern means of accessing food accelerates away from communal spaces, advancements in efficiency may return us to something like what is described for the food-buying process. Automated lines and grab-and-go store concepts seem to be embedded in the same concepts that inspired Starbucks’ Howard Schultz all those years ago. There is still a revolutionary future for how we can interface with food and design our spaces for greater social engagement. There is one piece of the puzzle in this documentary. While it is a nice way to spend some time reflecting on other people’s history with cafeterias, the documentary’s stubborn reluctance to really engage politically sours its own inclusive process. Showing nostalgia is great but what about supporting unions that allow greater working conditions to make today’s food stores worthwhile, or the lower-class communities that might benefit so greatly in all the ways the documentary details before deciding they are a nuisance?


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