Fifty years of instant memories for Auto-Photo Canada

Canadian Jewish News 9/4/2003
by Anita Szabadi-Gottesman

When Clark Kent needed a place to change into his Superman outfit in the blockbuster feature film, he used a photo booth supplied by Auto-Photo Canada Ltd. Familiar to most of us as a quick stop for photos, Auto-Photo Canada is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a Canadian leader in the instant photo business.

In 1950, Samuel Grostern brought the new concept of instant photo booths from New York City to Canada. His company has remained in the hands of his family, with Sam's son George, 66, and grandson Jeff, 40, at the helm today.

''I was 16 when my father started the business and I began working in the shop handling shipping and repairs,'' says George Grosten. ''You could say I grew up in the business.''

A chartered accountant by profession, George worked independently for many years and bought the company from his father in 1976.

Sam remained active in the company until his death last year at the age of 94. He lived long enough to enjoy his grandson Jeff's entry into the business. Also a chartered accountant, Jeff worked for many years as the comptroller for a necktie manufacturing company, joining his father and grandfather 10 years ago.

The Grosterns have grown Auto-Photo Canada into the primary operator of automatic photo booths across Canada, with over 500 units located in most major malls.

''We have photo booths from Victoria, Vancouver Island right acrosss the country to Newfoundland,'' says Jeff.

With modest beginnings in the old Woolworth store chain, Auto Photo Canada instant photo booths can now be found at the premier retail spots throughout the country including, to name just a few, the Pepsi Forum and Fairview Pointe Claire in Montreal, Yorkdale Mall and the Eaton Centre in Toronto, the West Edmonton Mall to the Pacific Centre in Vancouver.

Most malls house one to four machines strategically placed in high-traffic areas such as entrances and exits and near the food courts. The enormous West Edmonton Mall contains 15 photo booths. Both the Montreal Metro and the Toronto Transit Commission in Toronto have several machines located throughout their transit network. Over the last several years, Auto-Photo Canada has also pioneered instant sketch and portrait studio machines, as well as ''hair illusion units'' that allow hair salon customers to test various colours and styles when making a change.

Both the technology and accessibility of automatic photo booths have changed dramatically in the last 50 years. As kids, we glammed it up with friends at the mall and waited for what seemed an endless amount of time for a strip of four small black and white photos to emerge. Today's machines provide almost instant colour photos or black and white sketched portraits. Traditional black and white photos are also still available for passport- quality pictures.

''We provide an instant high- quality photo,'' says Jeff Grostern. ''It is a true developed photo that will not fade and that will endure forever.''

Auto-Photo Canada has carved out a niche for itself as the designer photo booth supplier for Canada. Each of its booths is customized to match the decor of the mall.

''We sit down with each mall manager to design the specific booth for the mall in question,'' Jeff says. ''When the mall redecorates, we redo the photo both.''

Auto-Photo Canada's head office is located in the Royalmount industrial park in Montreal's west end. The company's team is rounded out by a full-support staff of 20, including technicians and carpenters. Its 12,000-square-foot warehouse has a dizzying array of photo booths, including some dating back to the company's inception in the 1950s.

A capital intensive business, each booth costs approximately $20,000. The units are custom built and then rented with a built-in service contract. Preferably installed in high-traffic areas, there is constant follow-up and the booths are continuously visited by the service team to ensure breakdowns are minimized.

''Our technicians are on the road six days a week, seven if necessary,'' says George Grostern. ''Jeff and I also make service calls when needed, we still run when necessary.''

While many of their roles overlap, Jeff specializes in marketing and sales and oversees much of production. George is quick to point out that when Jeff came on board, he immediately computerized the accounting system.

''While we both do everything, I appreciate Jeff's younger contacts and perspective,'' says George, who works in marketing research. Always looking for new venues in which to place the Auto-Photo units, he attends many trade shows and walks around malls scouting potential venues.

''I love malls and I am a great mall-walker,'' says George. ''I am always looking for new locations and looking to improve upon the placement of existing machines.''

Auto-Photo Canada is also always looking for new markets. It has recently expanded to include supplying photo booths for bar mitzvahs, weddings and other special events. And Superman isn't the only famous project it has worked on.

''We are often called by movie production companies to supply our booths for feature films,'' says Jeff. ''Most recently, one of our booths was featured in a Backstreet Boys music video.''

For another recent project, the company teamed up with a local cinema operator to create a custom-designed photo booth that resembled a large box of popcorn.

But Auto-Photo Canada isn't stopping at the local market.

''Tradtionally within our industry, there is one major company in each country,'' says Jeff. ''We are now ready to forge ahead into the American marketplace.''

The Grosterns are confident in their expansion goals.

''Everybody uses our machines because our quality is unsurpassed,'' says Jeff. ''While every photographer is our competitor, the ease of use and quality of our finished photos make us the common man's Karsh of photography.''

Contributed by Brian