One Man’s Bold, 100 Year Old Vision To Rebuild America’s Food Chain

A century ago, one man tried to build a better food system. He almost succeeded. What went wrong?

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1917, New York

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The Market, on the corner of 95th and Broadway. Source: Library of Congress’ Prints & Photography Reading Room

A dream died. Vincent Astor shut the doors to his moonshot project, The Astor Market. That corner of 95th and Broadway would never be the same again. Neither would America’s food chain.

The Astor Market was a bold experiment to overhaul and completely reinvent our food system. When it failed, naysayers celebrated. Some even got rich off of the wagers they had made about it. Supporters sighed. Some lost money. Eventually, everyone forgot. In this brief entry, we attempt to uncover (and recover) its grand vision, the man behind it, its undoing and the lessons learned by its demise.

Vincent Astor was born lucky.

He joined his family to exceptional fortune. He was the son of the Astor family, one of the richest in the history of the Nation. The Astors reached incredible prominence and power by the time Vincent was born, with immense “Robber-baronesque” property and political reach. Vincent’s father, John Jacob Astor IV, even got to be on the Titanic’s inaugural voyage. Which, at least when the Titanic sailed, was a good thing. Vincent’s step-brother, John Jacob Astor VI  was the (in?)famous Titanic Baby. When John Jacob died, Vincent inherited most of his Father’s enormous fortune.

You might know them if you’ve literally ever set foot in New York City. They’re the folks behind Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Astor Row, Astor Court, Astor Place, and Astor Avenue in the Bronx and the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. The Astors were capitalists and industrialists. Cheap slum lords that would do “anything for a buck.”

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A Young Vincent Astor

But Vincent was different. Vincent Astor was, according to Astor family biographer Derek Wilson, “a hitherto unknown phenomenon in America: an Astor with a highly developed social conscience.” From the moment he could do something about it, he began moving his family’s business away from slum-lording and profiteering off of misery. He wanted to built things of value, whatever that might be. Something that improved the lives of millions. He wanted to innovate, not just “hack together” and sell. He wanted to change the way people lived. In 1915, he got his chance.

At the time,

everyone was still getting their food from neighborhood grocery stores. Small department stores were littered across the Union and sold bare essentials to just the folks that lived nearby. There was an entirely new grocery store for every 400 Americans.

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Grocery store in the Early 1900s. Source: corbisimages.com

If that sounds inefficient, that’s because it was. Food took weeks, if not months, to get from the producer to the consumer. Despite the newly developed science of cold storage, that still meant a spotty and massively inefficient supply. Spoilage and waste were rampant to the point of being mundane. With the closing of the Frontier, there were periodic droughts and locusts in the West. And with rising populations and dispersed rural growth, the North East struggled with widespread nutritional deficiencies.

The entire food system depended on an intricate network of small suppliers, town-skipping traders, corrupt “wild-west” wholesalers and large amounts of luck. Food was inaccessible and unaffordable to entire masses of the population. It was a mess. A slow-moving and painful mess.

So, when Vincent Astor dreamed

of his project, he was captured by just one simple (albeit daunting) vision: to make all food affordable and accessible to everyone. Equal access was a radical idea, coming from a “Robber Barron.” It was noble – and difficult. But Vincent had a plan.

Vincent believed that if he built massive markets in dense urban centers and enabled producers to sell directly to consumers, that he could completely reinvent the industry. This way,  he could remove the middlemen whose margins drove up prices. And by collecting massive numbers of buyers and sellers under one roof, he would tap into incredible economies of scale that would help everyone.

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A coffee vendor demonstrating coffee at the launch of the Astor Market. Source: http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2016/07/astormarket.html

Vincent’s dreams went far beyond just the economics of the food. He’d thought deeply about the experience around the food. He encouraged sellers to let potential shoppers “feel” their products; to try the product before they bought it.

Asked about the innovation, Chai Mishra (Founder CEO of Movebutter) said “It’s difficult to understand today, just how groundbreaking this really was. Vincent Astor is known to history for a lot of things but he truly is the forgotten hero of the American food revolution. The Astor Market wasn’t a slight improvement over the exiting model. It was an entire order of magnitude better than anything that existed at the time.”

The market was designed by the legendary firm of Tracy and Swartwout in 1915 and financed by Vincent Astor with between $750,000 and $1,000,000. In the frieze was a mural by William Mackay who also made murals for President Theodore Roosevelt . Iconic artist Jules Guérin created banners for the flagpoles that were placed on the roof.

Build it. And They Will Come.

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Women browsing flowers at the opening of The Astor Market. Source: Library of Congress’ Prints & Photography Reading Room

And they came. From miles and miles away, people descended onto the newly minted marketplace. Even the sellers were taken aback by the size of the crowds that came. The day after, The New York Times read “Stallholders Surprised by Size of Crowds and Liberality of Buying”

The Astor Market was a hit. No one had ever seen anything like it before. The monstrous windows, the large hall, the free-for-all selling. It was a fresher experience. The atmosphere was electric.  All those in that room, that day, knew that they were a part of something large.

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The New York Times, covering the launch of the Astor Market. Source: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9E04EFD6103CE733A25754C1A9669D946496D6CF
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A Butcher introducing his premium cuts to some shoppers. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There was a palpable and real shift. You could feel it. This was commerce no one had ever seen before. It was so simple, so free and so groundbreaking. The sellers, the buyers and the spectators all knew it.

 

But it had to end.

“The Market can Remain Irrational Longer than You Can Remain Solvent”

Keynes was right. It was too good to be true. Two years into the project, The Astor Market was shut down. For all his grand ideas, Vincent Astor forgot to account for just one thing: human nature.

Human beings are lazy. They are creatures of convenience. Shoppers just weren’t ready to travel that far for their food. They were far too used to buying their food a block away. And no matter how incredible the experience or how dramatic the price savings, they stuck to their neighborhood markets. Once the vanity wore off, the numbers began to fall and would-be shoppers stopped going.It

The Western Fruit Jobber reported a few years later:

“Laudable as were the motives of the would-be reformer, the Astor Market, like other similar experiments, failed because its founder failed to consider the whims of human nature. One can count on his fingers the number of grocery and produce stores which have succeeded in attracting trade from any considerable distance to purchase staple articles of food…Most people, on account of service and convenience, prefer to buy at the neighborhood corner grocery, with the result that in this country there is one grocery store for every 400 people.”

And so, the boldest experiment in the American food system failed. Brought down by the sloth of its patrons and by the Achilles Heel of it’s design.

And So the Cancer Grew

Everyone that mattered in the industry heard about what happened to the Astor Market. And they all learned a lesson. That lesson, unfortunately, was the wrong one. In the century since the death of the Astor Market, we saw the birth and rampant growth of “The Supermarket.”

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Soon-to-exist Supermarkets, and their founders, now knew that they had to deal with the question of proximity; that they had to build close to the consumers home or else the scheme wouldn’t work. At the same time, they’d seen how much customers valued having all of their goods all together.

They started building. They took the idea of a large “one-stop-shop” for food and began opening up massive stores in every wealthy corner of the country. It was too easy to ignore the producer. So they did: they moved away from the open-air model of selling where the producer and the customer could buy directly. By the 1950s they’d moved entirely to “brands”; food, cut on assemble lines to perfect cuboidal proportions. Easy to market, easy to replicate and easy to spread. The middlemen creeped back into the food system and the number of brands kept going up.

Groceteria.com reports
“By the 1920’s…small regional chains such as Kroger,  American StoresNational Tea, and others began covering more and more territory, and A&P began moving toward a more national profile, operating over 10,000 of its “economy stores” by the end of the decade.”

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Supermarkets became a truly American phenomenon; a cultural landmark that stood for all that the World loved and hated about the U.S: the salesmanship, the sheer enormity of everything, the win-at-all-costs mentality and the consumerism. When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited President Eisenhower in 1951, they insisted on being taken to “An American Grocery Store” Just to see what all the fuss was about.

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The Queen was reportedly “bemused by the grocery cart’s little collapsible seat,” saying “it is particularly nice to be able to bring your children here.”

“Suddenly, one day, we all woke up and we were here. The failure of the Astor Market was a cataclysmic shift for the food system. Supermarkets have become entirely ubiquitous. Its to the point where consumers don’t even realize what’s wrong. Supermarkets act like funnels: they drive all of our good and decent food into tiny pockets across the country. Anything outside of those pockets is left bone dry. It is wildly inefficient. That’s how food deserts are created, ” added Chai Mishra, Founder CEO of Movebutter.

The Future Won’t Mirror The Past

Consumers are waking up to the issues with supermarkets. 2016 was the first year in American history when consumers spent more at restaurants than they did at grocery stores. By so many measures, millennials are savvier and more thoughtful consumers than their parents and grandparents. Gallup polls report that millennials challenging the norms of the Supermarket industry. Millennials are far more likely to reject national brands and opt instead for in-store ones. They’re also less likely to fall for aggressive pricing through coupons. Millennials now spend an entire $1000 a year less on groceries than their counterparts did a decade ago.

And that means something. “For any grocer to survive today, they will have to contend with three main concepts: Economics, Ethics and Experience. Millennials are the most savvy and thoughtful consumers the World has ever seen. They realize that if we are going to feed 7.1 Billion folks in the 21st Century, we’ll need a better system. And that system will, without doubt, have to make food more affordable, the distribution more accessible and the experience more engaging,” added Mishra from Movebutter.

As grocers look back, perhaps they will trace the pattern of the past century. Perhaps they will realize the true innovation of the Astor Market was in it’s ability to help consumers, to create better access and to improve real lives. Perhaps.

If they don’t, then they must do so at their own peril. Understanding full well that the next Vincent Astor might be around the corner. And that this new Astor Market will have learned from the mistakes of the past but will be built with intentions that are no less noble.

 

Staff Writers
The Modern Staple
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