PARIS – Diners in Paris are flashing back — and forward — to the era of the automat, but this time with a nod to organic farming.
A precursor to the era of fast food, automat eateries served hundreds of thousands of customers a day throughout the mid-20th century, allowing on-the-go diners to pick hot dishes from coin-operated metal lockers. Today, entrepreneurs in France and Scotland are appropriating the concept that once symbolized modernity to help customers get back to the land. Their automats offer not burgers and fries, but fresh and local produce and other ingredients.
Joseph Petit employs no staff at his two Paris stores. Both called Au Bout du Champ — “at the end of the field” — the small spaces are stacked with metal cubbies containing just-picked strawberries, hours-old eggs, and neat bunches of carrots or spring onions, depending on the season. Customers simply choose the box that contains the food they want to buy, then pay at a console which then opens the appropriate door.
It’s a system, Petit said, that brings fresh food to urban areas where few other options exist, while also supporting local, small-scale agriculture.
“We have some of the best farmers in the world,” the 31-year old Parisian said outside one of his two shops. “But unfortunately, we consume many of our products from abroad. They aren’t necessarily the best, they aren’t necessarily fresh, and we don’t really know who cultivated them.”
Petit maintains direct relationships with the half-dozen or so producers he buys from; the suppliers vary according to the season. The farmers cultivate a variety of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and herbs, in addition to eggs and juice. All of them work within 100 kilometres of Paris, and Petit and his colleagues go to collect the fresh harvest every day for delivery.
To the north, Peter Grewar is embracing a similar strategy. A third-generation farmer, he developed a similar concept after people driving by his 1,300-acre potato farm in Perthshire, Scotland, would stop and ask if they could buy directly from him.
His metal boxes come from Germany, logical considering the first automat opened in Berlin in 1897. His colleague down the road originally imported the boxes to keep his eggs fresh. The two began selling their products from the boxes, soon bringing in neighbouring farmers who offered products, including broccoli, cauliflower and berries.
The only rule? “It has to be Scottish produce and it has to be seasonal,” Grewar said.
For Grewar, the model allows him to build closer relationships with his customers and better gauge product demand. That useful connection, he said, is “really powerful, and it may well lead our business down a different path. We’re already producing 5 to 6 acres of different vegetables we didn’t think we’d be growing even six months ago. One or two of them may take off.”
So far, he said, the boxes are turning a profit. They’ve now installed sets in four locations, including one in a shopping centre in Dundee. The farm is now dedicating about six acres to crops it plans to sell in the boxes.
Back in Paris, Petit said he maintains competitive prices by employing no staff, instead relying on customers to operate the automats themselves. The 31-year-old Parisian said it also allows him to keep his shops open seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., a novelty in a city where commerce generally closes down before sunset.
“We’re trying to adapt to the new lifestyle of people — who might get up early, might stay up late — but don’t necessarily have the time to go to the market,” Petit said. “We need this to stay accessible to everybody.”
Petit opened his first store in the northwest Paris suburb Levallois in July 2013, unveiling the second in the city’s Clichy neighbourhood one year later. The stores each serve approximately 100 customers a day, and perhaps double on weekends, Petit estimates.
Marine Clappier, 28, counts among them, frequenting the store since she moved to the neighbourhood nearly a year ago. She said it’s certainly not a one-stop shop, but she likes the convenience factor.
“The advantage for me is I always pass by,” she said. “If I’m missing something in my fridge, instead of buying a pizza or a burger, I prefer to come by and buy something to make a soup.”
Clappier said she especially appreciates that the store stocks only what’s seasonal and fresh, which remains one of Petit’s core goals. “You have to get people again used to the fact that we don’t have salad from October until April, and that’s normal,” he said.
Petit said he makes deliveries every day to ensure flavour. “They rediscover taste,” he said of his patrons. “Our strawberries are picked in the morning and put in the locker in the afternoon, so people find the strawberries the same way the farmer gave them to us.”
Though ecological principles ground his business, Petit said he wants to avoid taking on a heavy activist role. He fears that would alienate people who enjoy access to fresh groceries, but don’t have time for or interest in the politics surrounding the food industry.
By the end of this year Petit hopes to open two or three more stores in Paris, and add an additional five in 2016. “It’s a model that really makes sense to me,” he said. “It’s honest.”
Lori Hinnant contributed to this report.