Video: The employee-free cafe and the honor system in North Dakota

posted at 4:01 pm on June 24, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

In a world of arrogant apparatchiks, biased media, and laughably dishonest pols, it’s time to take a quick break and restore a little faith in humanity. We turn to North Dakota, where one entrepreneur has discovered that trusting his neighbors to pay for their coffee is not just a good bet, but actually even better than assuming they won’t (via Rob Port):

A coffee shop in Valley City is saving money on employee costs…because it doesn’t have any.

“The Vault” downtown has been growing in popularity as a self–serve hangout.

It’s like any other coffee shop in that it has coffee, tea, and pastries.

The one thing it’s missing?

Staff.

“At the time I didn’t realize how unique that was, I thought it just made sense. And I found out later by Googling…there really isn’t anything else like it,” said co-owner/operator David Brekke.

WTNH also picked up on The Vault’s business model of trust:

If you don’t have cash, you can use a credit card or a check. Another bonus is that you don’t need exact change; the computer will round the cost of your coffee up or down, depending on your drink.

Owners say people actually tend to pay 15 percent more instead of being dishonest.

You can also purchase tea and pastries, and the coffee shop offers movies every Saturday.

Here’s why I think The Vault succeeds, even if it’s not quite profitable yet. First, people are generally honest, especially in smaller communities where social connections are tighter and everyone knows each other. Valley City has a population of around 6600 people as of the 2010 census, so not too many people will be chintzing out on payment when others are watching. Second, the act of paying on the honor system is an opportunity for self-affirmation. It would make people feel good that they are participating in a transaction honestly, and that may be even better than the coffee and the conversation.

There is another aspect to this, too. North Dakota has a booming economy thanks to the oil industry, and in many places has more good-paying jobs available than people. The labor market is much tighter as a natural result of economic expansion, therefore more expensive, and the need to forego staff may be more of a necessity than an innovation. Where labor becomes more expensive from artificial interventions such as minimum-wage hikes in looser labor markets, the employee-free approach will look more attractive where it can be applied, and will have little to do with self-affirmation.


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First place to do that next is Seattle.
Imagine it takes down Starbucks. The irony of Seattle’s $15 wage law.

anotherJoe on June 24, 2014 at 4:06 PM

by the way, first, Bishop, whatever

anotherJoe on June 24, 2014 at 4:07 PM

Prepare for an influx of Occupy Wall Street types.

HopeHeFails on June 24, 2014 at 4:07 PM

Wow. Very nice…

OmahaConservative on June 24, 2014 at 4:07 PM

Imagine it takes down Starbucks.

Robots can easily make frothed coffee.

HopeHeFails on June 24, 2014 at 4:08 PM

Really cool.

I was just thinking that I would like to go to North Dakota and see the boom for myself. My grandmother’s family is from the Fargo area…it’s been at least 15 years since I last visited.

Missy on June 24, 2014 at 4:09 PM

Hey, it’s called a vending machine !!!

burrata on June 24, 2014 at 4:13 PM

Dumb Starbucks

anotherJoe on June 24, 2014 at 4:15 PM

Prepare for an influx of Occupy Wall Street types.

HopeHeFails on June 24, 2014 at 4:07 PM

If that crowd won’t go to ND for the 80K per year jobs, I doubt if they will go for free coffee and a pastry.

KW64 on June 24, 2014 at 4:18 PM

They should try this in Detroit or Chicago.

KMC1 on June 24, 2014 at 4:19 PM

The Vault succeeds because they are in North Dacota. Try doing that in NYC or NOLA, you’ll end up with every piece of equipment that isn’t naled down stolen. Oh, and feel free to give me a kick if you believe that the correlation between petty crime rates and ethnic distribution of the population is purely incidental…

Rix on June 24, 2014 at 4:20 PM

Do this in a Democrat stronghold. You won’t make your first month’s rent, and your landlord will be keeping your security deposit and then some.

crrr6 on June 24, 2014 at 4:20 PM

I worked at a place with a bunch of low-lifes once, some guy put in this honor-based vending machine system. I tried to tell him “listen, I know what kind of people I’m working with, you’re gonna get taken hard!” Yep, it lasted about a month. He put a lot of food into it, and a lot of it got eaten, but not much got paid for.

Tom Servo on June 24, 2014 at 4:26 PM

Reinforce the honor system with webcams accessible to the public. Customers can watch each other. Who wants to get caught stealing?

Charlemagne on June 24, 2014 at 4:26 PM

Do this in a Democrat stronghold. You won’t make your first month’s rent, and your landlord will be keeping your security deposit and then some.

crrr6 on June 24, 2014 at 4:20 PM

and you’ll end up with a bunch of sqatters and their dogs using the address to get their freebies delivered by the government.

burrata on June 24, 2014 at 4:27 PM

i think it has more to do with the clientele than the inherent goodness of people

tlynch001 on June 24, 2014 at 4:27 PM

Democrats: Hey, he’s keeping some poor out of work barrista out of a job! And besides it should all be free!!

JimK on June 24, 2014 at 4:27 PM

They should try this in Detroit or Chicago.

KMC1 on June 24, 2014 at 4:19 PM

That’s what I was thinking too. I’m in DC. Try opening one of those here. The place would be emptied, graffitied, and turned into a crack den in five seconds.

My only take away from this story is that dreamy libtarded flakes have apparently invaded North Dakota.

WhatSlushfund on June 24, 2014 at 4:28 PM

What a fool, trusting those Scandinavians.

MichaelGabriel on June 24, 2014 at 4:31 PM

Minimum wage….$0.00

can_con on June 24, 2014 at 4:32 PM

Reminiscent of the old automats.

Cool.

Dr. ZhivBlago on June 24, 2014 at 4:35 PM

They should try this in Detroit or Chicago.

KMC1 on June 24, 2014 at 4:19 PM

Um….. yeah. All the coffee would be gone. Along with the pastries, tea, and fixtures. The odds of the building actually remaining are no better than 50/50.

Happy Nomad on June 24, 2014 at 4:37 PM

I used to frequent a pottery shop in Galena, IL. The wares where priced and displayed in the owner’s small garage. The shop was open all day and into the evening. More often than not the potter was in his studio or in the house. He left just a little lock box attached to the wall. If you wanted something you just put money in the box. Anyone eaasily could steal anything they wanted including the lock box. He said he’d only had a few pieces walk off in the many years he’d been doing it. That very minor loss was more than offset by how much it freed up his time.

DamnCat on June 24, 2014 at 4:41 PM

employee-free cafe

Ahhh.. the good old days of the Obama Era

faraway on June 24, 2014 at 4:41 PM

I’m in DC. Try opening one of those here. The place would be emptied, graffitied, and turned into a crack den in five seconds.

WhatSlushfund on June 24, 2014 at 4:28 PM

Hey! Enough about Congress!

This concept would never fly in DC for the same reason that the DC City Council is attacking Uber. No patronage jobs. No kickbacks to get business licenses. Nothing in it for the DC City Council or any of the ANC commissioners.

Happy Nomad on June 24, 2014 at 4:43 PM

A coffee and pastry joint in Katonah, New York (upper Westchester) used to work like that. There was a tray full of money and a bunch of coffees, pastries, and bagels. You just grabbed and paid. The theory here was that everybody was catching the same train into NYC and waiting on people would halve the number of customers served. It worked pretty well. There were employees in the shop; they just didn’t monitor each transaction. It also probably helped that you had the same group of people more or less at the same times each day.

I would guess Katonah leans pretty strongly Republican.

levi from queens on June 24, 2014 at 4:50 PM

I lived in a small town of 2000 on the south shore of LI, NY. Doxsee clams had a small operation on the water. They kept a freezer of frozen baked clams, clam chowder, shelled clams etc in an entryway at the back of the building. You would get what you wanted out of the freezer and stuff your bills into a box next to it. It was great and it was there for decades right up until they closed the clam processing plant there a few years ago. People always seemed to give the right amount of money or more.

BeachBum on June 24, 2014 at 4:50 PM

Prepare for an influx of Occupy Wall Street types.

HopeHeFails on June 24, 2014 at 4:07 PM

If that crowd won’t go to ND for the 80K per year jobs, I doubt if they will go for free coffee and a pastry.

KW64 on June 24, 2014 at 4:18 PM

OWS want free stuff, not good jobs that involve actual work.

talkingpoints on June 24, 2014 at 4:52 PM

Yeah, that’s gonna last right up to when somebody writes a story about it in the paper.

ElectricPhase on June 24, 2014 at 4:53 PM

Yeah, that’s gonna last right up to when somebody writes a story about it in the paper.

ElectricPhase on June 24, 2014 at 4:53 PM

That’s when Hussein will read it, and get really really mad :O

burrata on June 24, 2014 at 4:56 PM

Our break room is configured similarly. We’ve been issued a card, that we can put money on – then we swipe the card for our purchases. The products are displayed on shelves – walk in, pick up what you want, scan the bar codes for each item, scan your card and walk out. It’s been in place for about two years now. Unfortunately, convenience has its price – which is good – the high prices keep me from consuming a lot of extra calories.

Hill60 on June 24, 2014 at 4:57 PM

Anyone remember those old Automats they used to have in NYC and maybe elsewhere? A sit-down restuarant, but with vending machines lining the walls filled with various sandwiches and packaged beverages. You put your money in a revolving machine and get your item and sit down to eat it. Minimal staff behind the walls to keep the place clean and restocked. (Actually, I’m not old enough to *personally* remember these things, but I’ve seen them in old movies. :D )

Moron Labe on June 24, 2014 at 4:57 PM

This sort of thing is how fast food places etc will deal with the minimum wage hikes.

There is a machine that can make burgers from basic materials.

The machine literally grinds the meat making fresh ground beef. It can dynamically mix different types of meat to give you a leaner or fatter paddy. It can mix spices into the meat etc. Then it can custom grill the meat. Anything between raw and well done.. Slice tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, onions, etc. Assemble the whole thing with condiments you chose.

All of it automatic and custom.

The machine costs 80 grand and can make 300 custom burgers per hour. 24 hours a day 7 days a week as long as its supplies last. Keep it fed with ingredients and it can run all day and all night.

The machine is sealed against contamination. No worries about employees not washing hands or other health issues.

And that is just one application. If you can have a machine that makes burgers you can have a machine that makes pizzas, makes tacos, makes sandwiches, makes soups, makes anything.

I think we’re going to see a lot of fast food/coffee shop places get automated.

Do that and you don’t even need to trust that people are honest. The machine doesn’t do anything until it gets your money.

Karmashock on June 24, 2014 at 4:58 PM

They should try this in Detroit or Chicago Washington DC.

KMC1 on June 24, 2014 at 4:19 PM

As in, they should use it as a model for the entire city.

stefanite on June 24, 2014 at 4:59 PM

With robots and touchscreens, I could see this operating on the automat model, which is what many fast food places will probably be turning into. But I have to agree, what might work in a small town in North Dakota would be a mob scene at best somewhere else, whether it was the “customers” or protesters demanding that it all be for free.

The “inherent goodness” of people is based on the presumption of a civilized society.

WestVirginiaRebel on June 24, 2014 at 4:59 PM

With robots and touchscreens, I could see this operating on the automat model, which is what many fast food places will probably be turning into. But I have to agree, what might work in a small town in North Dakota would be a mob scene at best somewhere else, whether it was the “customers” or protesters demanding that it all be for free.

The “inherent goodness” of people is based on the presumption of a civilized society.

WestVirginiaRebel on June 24, 2014 at 4:59 PM

And that leads to the inexorable conclusion that some places in America are no longer civilized, though some obviously still are. This is why “States’ Rights” should still be a thing, and why the freedom of businesses to conduct themselves in whatever manner they see fit is so important.

gryphon202 on June 24, 2014 at 5:01 PM

And that is just one application. If you can have a machine that makes burgers you can have a machine that makes pizzas, makes tacos, makes sandwiches, makes soups, makes anything.

I think we’re going to see a lot of fast food/coffee shop places get automated.

Do that and you don’t even need to trust that people are honest. The machine doesn’t do anything until it gets your money.

Karmashock on June 24, 2014 at 4:58 PM

Like in those Krispy Kreme stores , a little more automation and it can become a vending operation needing just one person to monitor the whole thing !

burrata on June 24, 2014 at 5:11 PM

Leftist don’t pay if they cN get away with it, they also tip lousy

They don’t put their chairs back in place or clean up after themselves.

Conservatives are opposite….we put our chairs back, clean up after ourselves and tip well even if poor.

losarkos on June 24, 2014 at 5:11 PM

Where labor becomes more expensive from artificial interventions such as minimum-wage hikes in looser labor markets, the employee-free approach will look more attractive where it can be applied, and will have little to do with self-affirmation.

In the places where “living” wages exist, there won’t be so much honesty.

GWB on June 24, 2014 at 5:13 PM

This sort of thing is how fast food places etc will deal with the minimum wage hikes.

Karmashock on June 24, 2014 at 4:58 PM

At a minimum, fast food restaurants are going to counter absurd “minimum wage” laws with kiosks for ordering. I welcome the change. The transaction would be much more efficient without a mumbling “living robot” punching buttons on a screen for me.

BTW, when I was in Italy last week I went to a buffalo mozzarella farm. The milking machines were automated. The animals lined up when they needed milking (or to get to the food that they only could access after being milked). Chips recorded output for each animal.

Happy Nomad on June 24, 2014 at 5:13 PM

Out where I live (West of Seattle across the Sound) you see roadside flower stands, a vegetable one now and then, and at least one local coffee shop works that way (for the drip coffee).

It’s all down to what the locals are like, no matter what ethnicity or whatever. Could work anywhere the locals are good people.

Where that’s not the case… not so much.

WitchDoctor on June 24, 2014 at 5:14 PM

This reminds me of a favorite place of ours for the last 35 years or so down in the British Virgin Islands. On the island of Jost Van Dyke, there’s a place called Sydney’s. Ever since we started going to have fresh lobster, 35 or so years ago, there’s been an honor bar.

No one works the bar. You go behind the bar, make yourself a drink and either put the money in the till, or write a tab for your table.

In all the years we’ve gone (sometimes twice in one trip,) I haven’t seen not a single customer cheat dear old Sydney.

What great memories that place holds for us.

jersey taxpayer on June 24, 2014 at 5:19 PM

Anyone remember those old Automats they used to have in NYC and maybe elsewhere? A sit-down restuarant, but with vending machines lining the walls filled with various sandwiches and packaged beverages. You put your money in a revolving machine and get your item and sit down to eat it. Minimal staff behind the walls to keep the place clean and restocked. (Actually, I’m not old enough to *personally* remember these things, but I’ve seen them in old movies. :D )

Moron Labe on June 24, 2014 at 4:57 PM

They had them in Philly, too, owned by the Horn and Hardart Co, which is why we usually referred to one as a “Horn and Hardart.” We lived in South Jersey, and before there were shopping malls, people would go to Philly to shop. My grandmother and I would get on the bus, then take the train into Philly where it became the subway. She would bring a roll of nickels with her so we could get lunch at the H & H. (At that time, the machines were set up for nickels only.) I remember the food as being very good and the place itself very clean. Sometimes you could see the ladies in the prep area opening and filling the shelves on the revolving units. There was no way to cheat and get the food for free because the little windows would open only when you’d placed the right number of nickels into the coin slot.

catsandbooks on June 24, 2014 at 5:30 PM

I think you will find that quite a bit in small town America. I have done that with garden excess and haven’t had any problem.

wifarmboy on June 24, 2014 at 5:56 PM

North Dakota doesn’t have swarms of bums.

portlandon on June 24, 2014 at 6:05 PM

North Dakota doesn’t have swarms of bums.

portlandon on June 24, 2014 at 6:05 PM

Pretty much. Try this style of coffee shop in a typical urban setting and it won’t be remain in business long.

hawkeye54 on June 24, 2014 at 6:08 PM

Ya know, this may be the wave of the future. I have often wondered where the machine was made that they used on Star Trek. Ya know, the one where they walk up to a wall, tell the wall what they want, a door slides up and there it is, piping hot. I never say a barista there, but I bet there were a bunch of maintenance types. Somebody find out where they make those machines.

Old Country Boy on June 24, 2014 at 6:21 PM

North Dakota doesn’t have swarms of bums.

portlandon on June 24, 2014 at 6:05 PM

Pretty much. Try this style of coffee shop in a typical urban setting and it won’t be remain in business long.

hawkeye54 on June 24, 2014 at 6:08 PM

I’m sure these would work in Detroit.

slickwillie2001 on June 24, 2014 at 6:29 PM

anotherJoe, I don’t think it would work in Seattle. Too many looters there.

WannabeAnglican on June 24, 2014 at 7:05 PM

@Old Country Boy

Replicators. Sort of like the descendants of our 3D printers today, but operating on the quantum level.

Moron Labe on June 25, 2014 at 6:15 AM

Of course it works in ND. Everyone has a freaking job, who needs to steal?

PJ Emeritus on June 25, 2014 at 11:06 AM