Could a Restaurant Run on the Honor System in New York? One Did, for 78 Years
What if there were a restaurant where you could just pay what you thought was appropriate? Is that a sustainable business model? In a simpler time, it was. It was called the Exchange Buffet in New York City, and it lasted for 78 years.
THE FIRST "WAITERLESS" RESTAURANT
The Exchange Buffet was located across from the bustling New York Stock Exchange, and offered a different type of dining experience. Sometimes labeled "the first waiterless restaurant in the United States," the Exchange Buffet catered to stockbrokers on-the-go, and operated from 1885 to 1963.
EVEN FASTER THAN FAST FOOD
In some ways it was even faster than fast food. Hustling businessmen who moved just as fast as old-timey film footage would order quick bites like sandwiches and shovel them down their throats at stand-up tables. When finished, they would tally their own bills and pay a cashier.
THE HONOR SYSTEM AS A PROMOTIONAL GIMMICK
The Exchange Buffet didn't see anything worth advertising or flaunting when it came to their unique business model. By advertising this way of doing business, the Buffet feared it would attract ne'er-do-wells who might take advantage of the system. Instead, word-of-mouth carried the business. But even in a city where everyone side-eyes each other, reports of people exploiting the service were few and far between.
After World War II, the business model struggled to adapt to changing trends in the restaurant industry. The Exchange Buffet filed for bankruptcy and closed in 1963.
COULD THIS WORK IN NEW YORK -- OR ANYWHERE -- TODAY?
In short... probably not. Not if it wanted to make a profit, anyway. With the price of everything skyrocketing, the odds of a customer ponying up enough money to account for the true cost of food AND cover the necessary overhead to keep the lights on are not likely. The only way someone might give extra in this scenario would be for exceptional service, which this business model does not have.
Still, it's an interesting piece of history to look back on, and say something that unique did, in fact, exist in the state of New York.