big yellow taxi

Fotomat, cars, and film

Toronto.  In the days of film, the exposed film was processed and then printed. Prints and the developed film were returned to the owner. In the US, a company called Fotomat was formed. The company’s business plan was simple: Put up tiny one person kiosks in  plaza and strip mall parking lots. Do the processing and printing elsewhere, offer film, flash bulbs and processing dirt cheap – and finished prints within a day.

The concept took off in the States, and before long thousands of kiosks covered the landscape. Internationally, growth expanded into Canada with  about 45 kiosks here in Toronto alone. The owners down south were a litigious lot. Kodak took them to court over their choice of colours and display fonts. Besides, Kodak did not care to be associated with a cheap service.

The business was a mix of company kiosks and franchises which led to more litigation – this time with the franchisees over territory.  The business continued since everyone liked the idea of dropping off exposed film and buying new when visiting a plaza, then getting prints the next day or so. The company didn’t see the storm clouds forming. The development of minilabs meant film processing and printing in one hour, not a day or so. Worse, the kiosks were too small for the minilabs. The need for the Fotomat concept died.

The company was sold off but struggling. Fotomat quietly disappeared as one hour processing took over. To add to the turmoil, one of the owners was found guilty of fraud and fled to parts unknown.

My thanks to good friend George Dunbar for sharing this ad on page 12 in the July 2, 1971 issue of LIFE when the business was going gangbusters!

The title of this post is Joni Mitchell’s epic 1969/70 hit “The Big Yellow Taxi” which has the lines ‘ they paved paradise and put up a parking lot

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