for some time we searched for a solution to our "order up" system—something which would replace shouting order numbers with a more delicate, "honeygrow" approach. In an effort not to over-tech our restaurants with another digital display, we opted for a split-flap display system (which used to be found at train stations all over the world). We wanted this system to not only display order numbers, but also have the capability to show messages, symbols + promotions with a nostalgic, comfortable presence for our guests. One problem—we needed it to be custom built. Enter Oat Foundry—experts in the "cool stuff" field + perfect for the task of creating a decades-old signage system with the technical capabilities required in 2017.
We swung by their Bensalem headquarters + chatted with CEO Mark Kuhn to learn more about Oat Foundry's story + see what goes into the construction of each split-flap display.
hg: as you simply state, Oat Foundry builds “cool stuff.” Tell us a bit about how your team came together to build this “cool stuff,” + how each of your backgrounds factor into what you’re able to accomplish. We hear it all started with a vending machine…
mark: that's exactly right! We're thrill seekers…
"…we love seeing the motors turn, the laser cut, the LEDs blink, the beer flow, the messaging splash across the board."
We love looking back at the end of the day and saying, "I built that."
The idea of Oat Foundry was born from creating a proof-of-concept prototype pretzel vending machine. It was a hit-a-button, get a hot soft pretzel out, kind of project for the Philly Pretzel Factory. The PPF had approached Drexel requesting a team of mechanical engineers to pick apart the concept + build a prototype—we ended up winning the bid. It was seven months into the project that we realized we loved making cool stuff, and we loved doing it together. We graduated, incorporated 10 days later, and built a shop a month after that. The rest is history.
The Oat Foundry team's backgrounds are diverse: building massive + insanely cool chillers for breweries, reverse engineering automotive parts, overseeing + troubleshooting the entire manufacturing division for a medical device company, materials and resin R&D for the US Army Research Lab—the list goes on. Our job is fundamentally creative problem solving + building. Each member's background supports that from a unique perspective.
hg: how did your time at Drexel help prepare you for venturing into creating your own business?
mark: it's a question with a rather multi-faceted answer. While the practical answer is "we all met in Senior Design", part of me believes these guys—this team—were going to be doing something like this no matter what. It's in their blood. Another piece of it is exposure. Drexel has the co-op program which gave us access as undergrads to real engineering work for major corporations + cutting edge technology. We got to play with 50,000 psi waterjet cutters at age 19.
hg: what (if anything) is behind the name “Oat Foundry?”
mark: oh yes. It's an anagram! (editor's note: seriously, it is. Good luck figuring it out—if you do, Mark will bake you brownies. After some scribbling, we figured it out and damn, those brownies are good!)
hg: why did you decide to setup shop in Bensalem vs. Philadelphia-proper?
mark: Bensalem has an abundance of inexpensive office + warehouse space. Because we needed a physical shop, we chased the least expensive, largest space we could find.
hg: what services does Oat Foundry offer to other businesses?
mark: Oat Foundry designs + builds cool, crazy connected tech, brand activations, machines and PR stunts. We believe that engineering rigor can be applied to complex problems like, "How do I get more fans + patrons to enjoy this space," and "How can I get people to notice our product?" It's fascinating how our custom fabrications have begun to enter the world of brand marketing.
hg: what are some examples of the “cool stuff” you’ve built in the past? Any projects you’ve been eyeing up, wanting to try your hands at?
mark: Starr Restaurants came to us with an antique candlestick from the 1800's for their new restaurant Le Cou Cou. They had only the one, but needed 50. We got to mold + cast molten metal, machine + painstakingly recreate the beautiful patina of a weathered antique in a limited edition production run.
We really enjoyed making the centerpiece conference table for Saxbys Coffee's HQ. Similarly, it was hours + hours of hand-finishing, but the end result is undeniably beautiful.
We would love to do some work for Red Bull or Gore-Tex. They're always building insane stuff. Campbell's Soup would be fun, too. Or, you know, something during the opening ceremony for the Olympics. Or for the Flyers. We really want to build a laser harp, too.
My favorite project we spec'd out was a promotional stunt for Amazon's 'The Grand Tour.' The idea was to create car wrecks in utterly non sequitur locations. They wanted to cut a 2017 Ford Mustang in half and make it look like it had been dropped from a helicopter and crashed nose down into center ice at Bryant Square Park's Ice Skating Rink in NY for a one day event. Nutty. Totally our speed.
hg: you recently created a series of split-flap boards for our locations—each one with the ability to not only show order numbers, but custom messages + symbols as well. What went into the inspiration, conceptualization, design + ultimate construction of these boards?
mark: this is the kind of project where we really shine…
"…ground up engineering design with a focus on manufacturing…and cool."
The inspiration for the sign came from the vintage split-flap displays now departing (much to the chagrin of world travelers) from airports + train stations. Jen + Justin really liked the idea of thinking differently about how to call out order numbers—the idea was simple: make a split-flap display with custom honeygrow characters controlled by a web portal and each store's POS system.
The execution involved months of sheet metal design, circuit board prototyping, motor trials, screen printing tests, 3D modeling, back-to-the-drawing-board moments, coding-coding-coding and testing. Now, as the signs roll out, we get to see all that hard work come to fruition.
hg: did any of you have any experience with split-flap boards from your previous lives or was this an entirely new venture?
mark: this was an entirely new venture. Ground-up redesign.
hg: what were some struggles you encountered when working on the boards? Are you satisfied with the end result (because we certainly are!)?
mark: one of the largest + continual struggles is to go from building one prototype to building 100 of something, but when you're not yet at the point of building 10,000. We had to cajole many vendors to give us reasonable pricing because we were the "little guys" (even when ordering 45,000 flaps…). The supply chain grows + evolves with the production requirements, and we need to be ever vigilant of fluctuating lead times, incoming product quality + price.
hg: besides honeygrow, what other Philly-based companies have you worked with on recent projects?
mark: Starr Restaurants, La Colombe (editor's note: check out their trip to space!), Philly Mag, Saxbys Coffee, Cake Life Bake Shop, Zsa's Ice Cream to name a few.
hg: do you offer any type of workshops or educational experiences to pass along your knowledge to others? We see you have “Labs” coming soon…could you tell us a bit more about what you have planned there?
mark: 'Labs' will be some of our thought leadership and some important lessons that we have learned on projects. Also, there are plenty of Oat Foundry internal projects that spill over into useful work, which we would like to showcase. Only problem is finding time to write the articles + edit the videos!