Every Bar Needs an N.C.R. Register


1900-Series NCR Register at Karavas Tavern in Greenwich Village

To hell with Point of Sale systems. I have a message for Micros, Aloha, Squirrel and the like – F.O.A.D. (brush up on your Urban Dictionary fu if you’re confused). P.O.S. systems are ubiquitous in just about every town, and in every genre of bar and restaurant these days. 20 years ago? Not so much. WTF happened? There are two main reasons for the proliferation of computerized terminals: (a) the age of micromanagement – control-freak owners wanting as many metrics about their operations as possible and (b) The Man – big government. It’s far easier and for the legal mafia I.R.S.  to ensure that they get their vig fair share of tax revenue.

N.C.R. (National Cash Register ). They were a Dayton, Ohio-based company synonymous with cash registers for decades. For a long spell, NCRs were so ubiquitous in the U.S., completely obliterating any and all competition into non-relevance, that the term itself eventually morphed into noun-hood. Growing up a child of the 70′s, and even into my early hospitality career, I can’t recall visiting a single pub that didn’t have some beautiful brass or chrome series of these indestructible and timeless mechanical marvels.

N.C.R. unfortunately was acquired by Ma Bell – AT&T/Lucent or one of those Bell subsidiaries that I can no longer keep track of due to their myriad of splits, acquisitions, and mergers. When I was a kid, it was just Bell Telephone company. If you ask me, all their government-mandated corporate shenanigans over the decades, and the resulting dozens of oddly named, regional phone companies, seriously diluted the brand. What the hell is Nynex? Whatever.

The point is that the telephone company’s board of pocket-protector carrying nerds who eventually acquired and controlled N.C.R., turned what was long a much-loved, aesthetically brilliant, stupendously over-engineered, profitable and nearly indestructible product line into the the equivalent of a cheap-ass, chemically-laden, microwavable Hungry Man frozen dinner for the fat masses. It was partly due to modern computerization of anything and everything and the subsequent need for efficiency, increased profitability, and and bitch-slapping government over-regulation. Despite being re-spun off from Ma Bell (or whatever they were then called), the leadership succeeded in completely lobotomizing N.C.R., it’s creativity and distinctive market-defining products. Instead of continuing to churn out timeless, nicely heavy, highly-desirable museum pieces of efficient cash management, N.C.R. was re-christened and began selling completely forgettable Automatic Teller Machines, plasticized junk electronic registers bound for Staples and Office Depot, as well as third-rate Point of Sale Systems that practically no one buys, cares or knows about outside of Borneo.

The fall from grace, and the resulting demise of the gold-standard of cash registers, N.C.R. (commonly referred to as ‘National’), is yet another nail in the coffin – in my mind – of the zenith of American innovation that – for me – began sometime between the Industrial Revolution and Reconstruction, and died around the early/mid-1970′s. Along with (a) the absolutely tragic razing of Gilded Age estates by thugs like Robert Moses, the NYC Parks Department, and monopolistic corporations such as Consolidated Edison and (b) the death of the American automobile innovation and art [there will never be another Harley Earl]; the rise of “maximizing profits,” and death of artisan/utilitarian-driven products has ripped out my heartstrings something terrible. What we must endure today – a global economy, corporate excess, government overreach/corruption/imperialism -  and resultant crap products made mostly out of plastic, produced by relatively unskilled, poorly-compensated drones in China; shoveled to the Proletarians at innovation and competition-stifling troughs like Walmart.

I digress…

Anyway, much like the euphemism “86″ came from Chumleys, the glory days of N.C.R. brought us another misunderstood but somewhat widely-used hospitality term: “Z-out Your Register.”  In today’s terms, it meant run your batch or sales report and close out your register.

N.C.R.s were a joy to use. Uber-simplistic in operation. Any idiot could master the device in minutes. Sure as shit, they were rock-solid dependable. On a busy Friday night at 11:30pm, you’d never, ever have to worry about the the centralized server taking a crap, the network going down, the power going out (many earlier models did not require even electricity), or the bar’s P.O.S. node touchscreen becoming unresponsive. To boot, and as alluded to, almost every model (even up until the very popular 1900-series) was absolutely beautiful – a joy to behold, adding unprecedented atmosphere to any establishment.

You can actually still find a few of these in active use in a handful of old-school Irish pubs.

The downside of these wondrous works of art was that they made stealing, skimming, and tax evasion an easy task – even tempting – for the most shining examples of half-wit and previously honest owners, managers and bartenders. Using only mechanical registers ensured that there was very little actual accountability, traceability, inventory control, and record keeping. Sometimes, those were good things. Eventually, practically all owners and G-Man interpreted these as liabilities and thus – computerization flourished and ensured the demise of most things mechanical.

Today, however, N.C.R. registers in good working order (particularly older, ornate brass models) are experiencing a tidal wave of desirability and price-premiums in, not only the collector’s market, but the retro-resurgence of throwback, speakeasy type establishments in hipster-rich areas of San Francisco, Portland, and New York’s Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City neigborhoods. Once short-sighted owners are growing a new-found respect and understanding of N.C.R. craftsmanship and value-added propositions for their establishment – especially in terms of the overall look-and-feel of their establishments – one of several intangible assets that can add immeasurably to the bottom line.

Note to N.C.R., cut the shit and bring back the glory days.


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