Death of a FEBO Man

The man who made ‘pulling a diagonal’ an institution is dead. An obituary.

By Steve Korver, 22-05-2008, Amsterdam Weekly


A visit to the FEBO can put an eerie edge on any late Friday night. Just witness the almost religious quieting of a loud, beer-fuelled crowd as they stand in line, ready to slot some change into a futuristic glowing wall and magically receive the crunchy sacrament of grease: a kroket, bamibal, nasischijf, burger or kaassouffle. As if hooked up to some Pavlovian machine, they first drool, then abandon themselves to the oily lipstick kiss that these fast foods ultimately deliver.

Last week, it was announced that local fast food pioneer Johan de Borst, who gave us all this, died peacefully at age 88. De Borst learned his trade at a bakery on the Ferdinand Bolstraat. As a tribute, he contracted that street name to Maison Febo when, in 1941, at age 21, he opened his own business at Amstelveenseweg 274.

Besides the usual baked goods, De Borst also sold his own self-made salads and deep-fried snacks. And his kroketten hit like a bomb: old photographs document 100-metre line-ups of people awaiting their fix. That sort of demand would get anyone thinking. And so, in 1960, at his own house around the corner at Karperweg 3, De Borst built a service counter at his living room window and an automatiek in the wall of his sons’ bedroom. A family business was born. In 1990, one of De Borst’s sons took over the business, and today a grandson also sits on the board.

De Borst didn’t invent the automat, or automated food dispenser. It was developed in the US and arrived in the Netherlands in the 1920s, where it was used to circumvent a much-hated shopping-hours law that did not allow personal service after 6pm. But by the 1960s, it had essentially disappeared from the international streetscape—the technology just couldn’t go against the natural laws of coagulation—until FEBO came along with its nifty space-age design and quick rotation of the goods supplied.

Alec Shuldiner, an American systems analyst who now lives in Amsterdam, wrote his 2001 doctoral dissertation on the history of the automatiek, using FEBO as a case study. He says that the key to FEBO’s success was that they managed to overcome the automatiek’s bad image. ‘They were seen as teenage hangouts that served the worst meats, fried in the oldest of oils,’ says Shuldiner. ‘And what FEBO did was clean up both the image and the food and turn this business model into a fine art. Actually, “fine art” is probably not the best description—but you get the idea.’

And indeed, De Borst had a reputation as an honest perfectionist who was scrupulous about hygiene. While friendly, he was also firm and liked to be addressed with the formal u. To maintain his good name, he always made the kroketten himself. Even in old age he was often on hand in the factory to oversee the production of his snacks before they were delivered—fresh, not frozen—to a total of 58 franchises. In Amsterdam alone, there are 22 FEBOs, scattered all around town like pimples on the face of an adolescent.

Of the 350 million kroketten and 600 million frikadellen that the Dutch eat annually, only one or two per cent are bought at the FEBO. But according to Shuldiner, they are a hugely profitable company. ‘They were in the top ten of restaurant chains of the Netherlands as of early 2000. And just compare their outlet on Leidsestraat to the McDonald’s across the street in terms of space and personnel: sales are comparable, but FEBO’s costs are only a fraction of McDonald’s.’

While the vast majority of FEBO outlets are franchises, the family has always delivered the products in the name of quality control. The company also tries to stay with the times. Recognising the multicultural reality of Amsterdam, they took the pork out of their bamiballen, to make them Halal, and introduced spicy chicken to appeal to Surinamese customers. In 2007, they opened a new production centre in Amsterdam Noord; they also tested payment via mobile phone at a computer-chip-enhanced automatiek at their Leidsestraat outlet. Meanwhile, they are busy developing a low calorie ‘vitaaltjekroket and plan to open new outlets in popular Dutch tourist destinations such as Spain and Turkey—or at the very least, have a ‘mobile FEBO car’ doing a circuit of the Costas.

These days, FEBO is more than just a purveyor of food. ‘Een kroket trekken bij de FEBO’ has entered the Dutch universal consciousness. Everyone has a FEBO story. There are endless urban legends—usually involving a student prank. It provides endless fascination for tourists. In fact, one of these tourists, David Leong, was so inspired by the FEBO concept that he opened Bamn Automat in NYC’s East Village last year.

And if FEBO continues to move with the times, perhaps they will build ever larger walls with ever larger slots—and maybe let students rent them. And consider the biofuel possibilities: perhaps one day, the mere wringing out of a FEBO napkin will be enough fuel to get your scooter to the next bar. But all these are still dreams, to be implemented by a fast-food visionary to come.

Illustration by
Karen Willey.

4 Replies

  1. I have a FEBO tattoo!

  2. Krissy Jun 8th 2010

    Wondering what the exact route that counts as pulling a diagonal??’

  3. 80 thousend Citenzen van Nederlands decent live in BC-CANADA

    Why not have FABO in CANADA!!

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