The Automat

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Post-Production



THE AUTOMAT, a documentary film about the phenomena of America’s original & most beloved restaurant chain in NYC & Philadelphia.



Americans once sipped coffee and ate pie around communal tables, sharing their struggles and dreams with strangers at Horn & Hardart’s iconic Automat. Lifetimes ago, these working class palaces nourished a sense of unity that bridged the diversity of class, language, gender and race in the urban melting pots of the East Coast.

The story begins in a booming Philadelphia in the late 1800s. White-collar workers are flooding into the offices of newly built skyscrapers, and lunchrooms are springing up to feed them. Coentrepreneurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart seize their chance and by the early 1900s have BUILT a thriving chain of small restaurants and cafeterias, the latter a brand new trend of its own. Hardart brings back from Europe inspiration for the Automat, a ‘waiterless’ cafeteria that proves enormously popular, making the Horn and Hardart chain the dominant American restaurant company for the next half century. Kings of the New York and Philly restaurant scenes, the Automats feed millions throughout the Depression and two World Wars, serving all comers in palaces of marble, silver, and steel. Good food served cheap, and the enduring thrill of the automat machines themselves wins the Automat a place in our culture and hearts alike.

Travel back in time to experience this unique piece of America's history, an exciting story and one that may seem strangely familiar. More than just entertainment, THE AUTOMAT is a parable of how we once dined happily together before turning to the isolated and unhappy experience offered by fast food, a bad deal that no amount of advertising can disguise.



Alec Shuldiner's thesis on the automat started at the moment he came across a Dutch automatiek while in Amsterdam. He thought, "I remember eating out of a wall in New York when I was a little kid." That experience and that memory led to a doctoral dissertation on the automat technology in Europe and America. Lisa Hurwitz, born and raised on the West Coast, never had the good fortune to eat in one, but gravitated to the Automat she read of in magazines and journals. Artists and historians, they have teamed up to share and preserve the rich history of Horn & Hardart and their unique restaurant concept. Believers in learning from the lessons of history they are collaborating on a film covering topics including the industrialization of food production, the development of labor unions in the food industry, and the proliferation of modern-day fast food chains. Primarily consisting of talking head interviews, narration, and archival photographs and film, the project strives to situate itself within an already established documentary genre. By working as independent historical documentarians--something of a rarity--the team hopes to push the boundaries of who can make this type of film and the scope of the audience it might appeal to.



Lisa Hurwitz - Director/Producer

Lisa is Director and Producer of the THE AUTOMAT. Lisa's background is in arts administration. She directed the 2012 and 2013 Olympia Film Festivals and is very proud to have run the Olympia Film Society's successful and crucial digital cinema conversion campaign. She currently works for both the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and it's parent organization the Stroum Jewish Community Center as a programmer.

Alec Shuldiner - Producer

Alec authored the 2001 PhD dissertation the film is based on, Trapped Behind the Automat: Technological Systems and the American Restaurant, 1902-1991. As a Producer and Historical Consultant on THE AUTOMAT, he is assisting in adapting his dissertation for the screen. Alec received his B.A. in Comparative Religion from Harvard University and his doctorate in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University. He lived for many years in the Netherlands where automat machines are still popular. Currently he works for Autodesk, a leading provider of 3D design, engineering and entertainment software.


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