Could 30th Street Station get a new flip board? This Philly CEO thinks so.
Oat Foundry, a Philadelphia-founded company, has made boards for the Eagles, Netflix, and Starbucks.
On a recent rainy day in January, Mark Kuhn was studying a prototype in his company’s 6,000-square-foot headquarters in Bridesburg. Today’s mission: trying to figure out what makes a button satisfying to press.
“It has to work and it has to make sense. And it has to surprise and delight,” said Kuhn.
A colleague recently suggested the sound of the “click” was happening at the wrong moment during the process of pushing down on the button.
“That’s a detail that really matters for something like this,” he said.
Figuring out how to build the button is the latest puzzle to solve at Oat Foundry, a company known for making split-flap boards like the one removed from 30th Street Station in 2019.
Kuhn, the CEO of the company, cofounded Oat Foundry in 2013 with five other Drexel University engineering graduates. Their thesis project was designing a soft pretzel vending machine.
“That wasn’t a product that we continued to develop, but we really liked working together,” said Kuhn. “So we signed up for some shop space in Bensalem and started to figure out how to start and grow a business.”
The group found their way to making split-flap boards by chance in 2015. The founder of Honeygrow, a Philly-founded casual food chain, wanted a new way to announce food orders and commissioned Oat Foundry to help devise a solution. Kuhn’s team reached out to an Italian company about their flip boards.
“We … didn’t really find anything that we were looking for a price point that a restaurant could afford,” said Kuhn. “So we pitched to [Honeygrow] that we would build it ourselves from scratch.”
Their second customer was the Chicago Cubs. From there, the board business took off and became Oat Foundry’s flagship product.
In the last 10 years, they’ve grown the business into a multimillion-dollar company, with 15 full-time employees, and they hope to hire three additional positions in sales, graphic design, and production this year.
Today, hundreds of their split-flap boards are out in the world, rotating and clacking their iconic sound.
Locally, they can be spotted at Pod, a restaurant in University City; the Ritz-Carlton in Center City; and at Pass and Stow at Citizens Bank Park. The Eagles use one of the company’s other products, a flip-disc display, during games to communicate with players on the field.
The split-flap boards are also in Netflix’s New York City office, just off of MIT’s campus in Boston, and at Starbucks’ visitor center in Costa Rica alongside the company’s coffee farm.
But a decade into the business, Kuhn’s biggest hope is homegrown: rebuilding the beloved split-flap board at 30th Street Station.
‘Designed to last’
A fluorescent sign in the Oat Foundry staff kitchen lights up the words: “We build cool stuff.” It’s the company’s mission, says Kuhn.
In the middle of their headquarters, swinging double doors separate the main office space, where emails and meetings take place, from where the “cool stuff” gets made.
Behind the doors, there is an incessant sound of a ticking split-flap board.
One sign has been continuously turning for about six years, racking up over 37 million rotations.
“They’re designed to last,” said Kuhn. “That’s part of why they command such a high price point.”
A flap — which is half of an alphanumeric character — is first punched out from a printout sheet, and then inserted into a “carousel” that will rotate, flipping through the characters. A rectangular sheet metal container called a “module” holds the carousel in place. The finished split-flap boards are made of several modules.
Each split-flap board is assembled by hand in the company’s Philadelphia headquarters with materials that are mostly sourced within 75 miles, says Kuhn. A typical board can take 12 weeks to build. A sign that is four by eight feet can carry an $84,000 price tag, he says.
A future in 30th Street Station?
For decades, the same clicking sound that permeates Oat Foundry’s Northeast Philly offices today echoed through Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, heralding the arrivals, departures, and delays of Amtrak trains.
But since 2019, the halls of the rail station have been absent clicks or clacks. Amtrak removed the 1970s-era electromechanical board and replaced it with a silent digital display, saying that the old board no longer functioned reliably. Philadelphians mourned its loss. A former 30th Street manager called it “the sound of the station.”
When news broke of the board’s removal, Kuhn and his team reached out to see if they could fix it.
Although the Oat Foundry boards look similar to 30th Street Station’s board, known as a Solari board because of its Italian manufacturer, he says under the hood they’re different.
“I think partially, that technology was just very outdated. It was using a bunch of old computers to run the transit information,” said Kuhn.
Officials announced that after a redesign of 30th Street Station, the ‘70s-era board will return — though without its signature sound. It will stand as a monument to its former self while the digital displays continue to direct travelers.
Kuhn thinks Philadelphia can do better, though.
He has been in touch with Amtrak since at least 2019 to try to get one of their signs in 30th Street Station.
“We would love to bring a flap board back to 30th Street,” he said. “We are ready to build one.”
Analog info in a digital world
Kuhn believes the boards have been so well received because “it’s not a TV.” The boards communicate information in a simple way, he says.
“When I wake up in the morning, my phone is my alarm clock. Then I use the Peloton and I’m looking at screens all day,” he said. “When I finally see something that’s not that, I feel like it’s escaping some blue-light fatigue that we seem to see.”
His business has been able to afford to grow in Philadelphia, while paying “better than livable wages” to staff, he says.
“I don’t know that we’d be able to afford to do [that] in a place like Brooklyn or a place like Los Angeles,” he said.
For a business like Oat Foundry, dedicated to innovative ideas, Philadelphia also makes sense because of its history in our nation’s founding nearly 250 years ago.
“Philadelphia” he said, “was the original start-up experiment.”