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FEBO and the automat in the Netherlands

FEBO and the automat in the Netherlands

Tulips, windmills, canals, and...FEBO!? Many would consider the Dutch fast-food chain to be just as typically Dutch as the other icons on the list. 

You might not know it, but FEBO and the unusual custom of selecting your lunch from out of a wall has been around for over 80 years. In honour of this classic Dutch tradition, let's dive into the history of the automat and FEBO -  and investigate whether it really is Dutch at all.

From Berlin to New York: The history of automats

An automat is a fast-food restaurant where food and drinks are served via vending machines. Whilst Amsterdam is now considered to be the automat capital of the world, the very first automats did not originate in the Netherlands.

Max Sielaff and Berlin

Max Sielaff was a German engineer and entrepreneur. In 1888, Sielaff and inventor Theodor Bergmann developed the first automat for Ludwig Stollwerck in Berlin - and it gained popularity fast. Shortly after its creation, more than 10.000 automats could be found all over Germany.

Horn & Hardart and Philadelphia & New York

Horn & Hardart was the first non-European company to receive patented automats from Max Sielaff’s automat factory. The company opened the first automat in the US on June 12, 1902, in Philadelphia. In 1912, the first New York automat opened in Times Square.

By 1941, Horn & Hardart had 157 retail shops and automat restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, serving 500.000 customers per day. Automats remained popular in New York for quite a while, right up until the rise of fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s in the 1970s.

In 2006, Bamn! Food (with the help of an automat dealer from Groningen) tried to bring the automat back to New York, but it wasn’t meant to be. Three years after opening, it had to close its doors.

Dutch fast-food phenomenon FEBO

Whilst the rest of the world was saying goodbye to automats and embracing fast-food joints like McDonald’s, the Netherlands stubbornly decided to hold on to the automat - and it was the Dutch company FEBO that was mostly responsible for that.

FEBO automat amsterdam

History of FEBO

FEBO stands for Ferdinand Bolstraat, a well-known street in Amsterdam. However, the very first FEBO was not located at the Ferdinand Bolstraat. It also wasn’t a fast-food restaurant. No, the very first FEBO started out as a bakery!

In 1941, Johan Izaäk de Borst opened a bakery called Maison FEBO. It sold artisan bread and other scrumptious baked goods. However, it was the freshly made kroketten (croquettes) that were the bestsellers.

People would stand in line for hours to get their hands (or mouths, more accurately) on one of Maison FEBO’s kroketten. The snacks were so popular that De Borst decided to quit baking bread and pastry. He wanted to focus on the kroket and other similar fried snacks, so he closed the bakery.

In 1960, De Borst opened his first automatiek (automat), around the corner from his former bakery. It wasn’t the first automat in the Netherlands, but it would be the first FEBO automat of many!

The ongoing popularity of FEBO in the Netherlands

At the moment, there are over 66 FEBO automats in the Netherlands, more than 22 of which are located in Amsterdam alone. They can be found at numerous train stations and shopping centres, and on high streets in cities across the country.

The number of FEBO shops continues to grow, and the popularity of their kroketten doesn't look like it'll fade any time soon. In fact, back in 2016, the shop celebrated its 75th anniversary, and since then has launched a fun clothing line (Febo Haute Friture) for die-hard fans of the fast-food chain!

The automat: is it typically Dutch?

Why is the automat (and FEBO) still so popular in the Netherlands, when all other countries have abandoned it? Perhaps it’s because FEBO has tried to keep up with the times by adding a delivery service, drive-thru locations and more vegetarian options? Or is it because FEBO’s kroketten are just soooo good?

Whatever it is, it seems like the automat is here to stay. And even if the automat didn’t start out Dutch, it’s hard to find them outside the Netherlands nowadays, making it one of those typically Dutch things in the end.

Have you ever pulled a kroket out of the wall, as they say in Dutch? Let us know in the comment section below!

Manja van Kesteren

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Manja van Kesteren

Managing Editor at IamExpat Media. Manja studied English and Creative & Professional Writing at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK. She has been working as a content editor and...

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