In 1928, the roving Marxist journalist Egon Erwin Kisch visited the Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan. He was, like many, at once beguiled and horrified by the place, finding it spotless but cruel; enormously productive, but with a brutal tax on the bodies of those that worked there. Kisch watched the workers labor on the conveyer belt. Down the assembly line come the axles, the chassis, the motor. Actions were broken into minute parts—pull a chain, tighten a screw, test a handle, sound a horn. Beyond the shop floor, he watched the workers ride the trolley to the factory, take measured breaks, chew tobacco—but no cigarettes, because, as Kisch wrote in his native German, “Mister Ford ist Nichtraucher,” a non-smoker. He watched them eat.
Here is how the workers ate:
Food carts are rolled to the halls of the departments. . . . Workers line up in a long row before the carts and soup pot. . . . In a seven-minute stretch you must, then, consume hot soup in a paper cup, sandwiches, coffee (which you drink from a thermos), and if necessary an apple. You chew in a standing position or kneeling on the ground. There are no benches or chairs.
This was the Fordist assembly line, applied to lunch. Kisch had been an observer at the discovery of fast food.
One such discovery, anyway; the road to fast food has many on-ramps. What Ford was doing there in Dearborn in 1928 was not a development in the reheatable speed of food preparation (to which the fast in fast food typically applies), but in the speed of consumption. The seven-minute meal: food made to eat fast. Soon, this Fordian principle of intensified labor would coincide with Ford’s main product—the automobile—in the form of the drive-through restaurant.
A drive-through is one relic of what we still call Fordism. The old terms of art, from booster and critic alike, still apply. Scientific management, workplace efficiency, assembly line; fragmented tasks, deskilled labor, employee surveillance. Nominally, Fordism gave way to its flexible, decentralized successor, whether neo- or post-, decades ago. Critics began offering unsentimental memorials to Fordism in the 1970s; as the country deindustrialized, with each closed factory came a new literary cenotaph for the Age of Ford. But obsolescence can breed nostalgia or amnesia. Yes, fast-food restaurants continue to have their clear, attendant ideologies (think only of the cluster of political signifiers associated with, e.g., a Chick-fil-A versus a Sweetgreen), but the drive-through is seldom considered in the context of its parent ideology, Fordism. Where then is the Fordist restaurant today?
A decade ago, a restaurant called Ford’s Garage opened in Fort Myers, Florida, a mile from Henry Ford’s old winter retreat. The city already traded on Ford’s name. Fort Myers has a museum for his jungly chalet on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, which he originally established in the 1910s to neighbor that of Thomas Edison. Ford’s Garage began as an unofficial museum restaurant in a town where everything is already Ford or Edison. (Ford Street; the Edison Theatre.) The restaurant, now a franchise that licenses Ford’s branding but is operated independent of the automobile manufacturer, boomed. At the time of writing, there are some two dozen Ford’s Garages spread across suburbs in six states; by 2024, three dozen restaurants would be a likely wager.
Ford’s Garage is in the walkie-talkie-army genre of restaurant. It exists in the land of rationalized, micromanaged arrivals (“join waitlist”; “your table is ready”), aiming to deliver upon that vouchsafed suburban promise, of never again having to wait in a city line. Customers are greeted by some three or four workers clustered around the hostess station. Seating is military precision. Crackle. Four-top coming your way. IPAs flow for dads. (A bartender there claims that whichever beer has the most alcohol is invariably the day’s best seller.) The menu is sports-bar standard ($15 hamburgers rule) distinguished by automotive puns (desserts = “sweet rides”). Male servers wear a uniform, mechanic-inspired. For women, dress typically leans toward a post-Hooters (another Florida origination) concession of short-shorts but chaste tops. Martial rituals take place periodically; all of the floor staff begin chanting at once. It has the rulebook discipline of a Cheesecake Factory.
Ford’s Garage is a theme restaurant. Nominally, its theme is the Ford automobile. Old service station filling pumps (display only) stand sentry at the door. Photographs of Ford Motor Company history line the walls. Model Ts hang from the ceiling, their tires slowly rotating. Onion rings are served on a metal oil funnel. Sinks are fashioned from tires. Tat Fordiana rules: a petrochemical Planet Hollywood.
The restaurant’s true muse, however, is not the Ford automobile, but the Ford logo. Everything is emblazoned with the logo. Everything: the sign, the uniforms, the beer glasses; even the burger buns have the logo branded onto them. It is a Malkovich-Malkovich dream of the Ford logo. Although the script of the logo, ostensibly a signature from the hand of Henry himself, leans forward (crank handwriting analysis was popular when the trademark was settled), the logo is backwards-looking. It is perhaps the most antiquated of all the American automotive logos, the only brand that, like Coca-Cola, has not dropped the cursive font; Buick, Cadillac, and Chevrolet all once shared its appearance.
At Ford’s Garage, the Ford logo does not imply Fordist production—the restaurant is not fast food—nor does it really stand for Ford automobiles. The Ford logo means: the Ford logo. The brand is the thing in itself, the tautological thing. (Imagine a Verizon restaurant, where everything was stamped with its checkmark. Would it still imply a mobile network?) Ford’s Garage use of the logo is symptomatic of the status of the Ford Motor Company today, which makes more money from interest on loans than on actual cars. If the Ford factory is newly marginal, perhaps some value can be extracted from its intellectual property in the service station. Ford’s Garage is a fast-casual symbol of deindustrialization.
In 2017, Ford’s Garage opened a new branch of the restaurant in Dearborn, Michigan, a straight shot seven miles west of Detroit. The late critic Mike Davis, echoing Kisch, once wrote of the “immense citadels” of Ford in Dearborn; a “miniature feudal state where streamlined technologies were combined with a naked brutality.” Dearborn is still a home to Ford, materially and culturally. Some Ford executives still live there, perhaps in the “Ford Homes Historic District” built by the company in the 1920s; that is, if they have not moved to Grosse Pointe or newer suburbs. On the main drag, Michigan Avenue, the new cosmopolitanism of the city allows for a choice of Yemeni chai or Dunkin’. But plus ça change: the Ford Drive-In Theater survives, with a choice of five screens. Muscle cars still tear down the road at all hours. And Greenfield Village—Henry Ford’s open-air museum of the 19th century—has been around the corner for much of a century.
The name “Greenfield Village” is hard to hold in mind; generic as possible, it is the Springfield of museum names. It is intended to represent a selective distillation of American towns of the 1800s—there are crafts demonstrated (glassblowing, typesetting, pottery); Victorian baseball is played most days; train tracks line the town. Walt Disney—“the Ford of media,” as he was once called—drew inspiration from Greenfield for his Mainstreet, U.S.A., and any who have been to the latter will find an analogous space. The mood is reverential; two statues of Henry Ford greet the museumgoer. As the New York Times put it recently, and delicately: “Popularly celebrated in his own era, Henry Ford’s legacy prompts condemnation today.” But at Greenfield, they by and large steer clear of Ford’s various adult prejudices, and stay parked in the innocent shelter of his 19th-century boyhood. Affable volunteers, retirees of the model-railroad-enthusiast type, deliver their best chestnuts when you approach one of the transplanted structures that make up the village. Some of the big names of American business and technology are represented: there is a Wright Brothers bicycle shop, an Edison lab, a Heinz ketchup house.
Ketchup is not kept tableside at Greenfield Village’s banner restaurant, Eagle Tavern. Modeled on a stagecoach guest house of the 1850s—meaning, here: exposed beams, candlelight, earthenware—and housed in a former inn, the restaurant maintains the anthropological aesthetic of the open-air museum by having young locals wear period dress as waitstaff (except for the shoes, always too comfortable at such venues, tripping up the historical pretense). The menu is limited to recipes that have been approved by museum archivists as bona-fide historical. It is a valiant if ill-fated attempt at period recreation. And, having opened first in the 1980s, the restaurant is now doubly “historical.” It aims to capture its stagecoach inspiration, while accidentally embodying the mainstreaming of what Mark Greif once called in this magazine the “‘humane’ food reaction” of the post-60s counterculture. Striving for a retreat from high technology, this ethic indulged instead in pious food logistics, adopting as mantra a hyphenate that professed provenance, “farm-to-table”—still sometimes said with a straight face.
Ford, the man, is present; his nostalgia is our lunch. But where is Fordism? Not at Eagle Tavern—because Greenfield Village is a Potemkin memorial for a type of place (horse-drawn) that Ford would help to destroy. Greenfield longs for a pre-Fordist world. There are contradictions, here—contradictions that Kisch and Davis and others have intuited. These are built in to the place. As Henry Ford articulated it, with captain-of-industry nihilism:
It does not matter whether you regimentalize the people as to food, clothing, and shelter, or whether you allow them to eat, dress, and live as they like. Those are mere matters of detail.
Neither will you find Fordism at Ford’s Garage—a pantomime of Fordist historicism, drawn to the postmodern hilt. This restaurant does not want anything to do with Fordism, either. But the Model T still hangs from the ceiling, its tires spinning on a road to nowhere. Once in a while, fake exhaust pipes out. The car’s horn sounds; the staff cheers. But no one seems to know why.