Travel is a great way to explore other ways of doing things, but sometimes it can also be a way to experience our own past as well. I am in the Netherlands right now, and one of the highlights so far was a visit to a FEBO automat. The automat, a form of dining in which food was purchased with coins and vended from small slots, was once very popular in major cities in the Eastern US. The main company operating these restaurants, Horn and Hardart, had a small empire built on nickels, sandwiches, and pie. I have always wanted to go to such a restaurant, but alas, the automat is extinct in North America. They couldn’t compete easily with fast food restaurants, and inflation made it impractical to buy food with US change, as the quarter is still their highest common coin.
In the Netherlands, however, a version of the automat still thrives. FEBO sells hamburgers and a collection of deep fried snacks vended in little windows. I tried my luck and exchanged a two Euro coin for a croquette, which turned out to be full of potatoes and leeks. It was, at best, odd, but I did enjoy the experience of retrieving food from a little door. I don’t expect a return to the day when thousands of New Yorkers grabbed a quick lunch at the automat, but I can’t help but wonder if some sort of North American relaunch is possible.