“I ordered a Coke,” I told the hotel operator. “There’s no minibar anymore.”
“That’s our policy,” the operator said brightly.
Fifteen minutes later, I complained again. “You can order anything you want from the front desk,” the operator repeated, ignoring my protests that my Coke with ice had never arrived. Then I had a bright idea.
“I’d like to order a minibar,” I requested. But my hopes were in vain.
There was no minibar at the Hyatt where I stayed in San Francisco, or at the boutique hotels I visited in Kansas City and New Orleans, either. Somewhere during my valedictory tour, I forgot all about the stale potato chips, the outrageous bar charges, the lonely condom packets, the legions of guardian sensors that charged me $8.95 for moving a bottle of orange juice from its motion-sensing pad. I forgot the impacted emptiness and displacement. Despite its shortcomings, the minibar was a faithful sentry that had stayed up late and kept me company in times of danger and personal sorrow. It had never failed to deliver something—liquor, candy, clean T-shirts, fresh socks—that made me feel less alone.
The stages of my mourning—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and late-night snacking—were eventually overtaken by my curiosity. I learned that the refrigerated minibar was invented in the early 1960s by a German company called Siegas, and first attained fame in 1963—as the world was recovering from the Cuban missile crisis—with the opening of the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. The brainchild of the globe-trotting developer Marshall Coyne—a friend to U.S. senators and a collector of historical documents and Sotheby’s-quality china—the Madison was built to be the capital’s most sophisticated hotel. Offering foreign television broadcasts and other amenities of the time, the Madison became a favorite destination for D.C. political heavies, as well as for prominent Soviet officials, like Georgi Arbatov, who turned their hotel rooms into an annex of the Kremlin, thus pioneering what might be called minibar diplomacy.
According to potted histories of this sort of thing, minibars went global in 1974, when the Hong Kong Hilton introduced liquor-stocked refrigerators into all 840 of its rooms, leading to a 500 percent increase in room-service drink sales and an estimated 5 percent boost to the company’s bottom line. But hoteliers later claimed that once labor, spoilage, and theft were factored in, minibars were a selfless gift to travelers. Meanwhile, companies like eRoomSystem Technologies tried to monitor stock with infrared sensors and other devices that eventually transformed Marshall Coyne’s dream of grown-up hospitality into a supermax prison for sodas and candy.
Other vending companies tried less oppressive efforts to make the minibar pay off. As the Cold War drew to a close (thanks in part to Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 visit to Washington, D.C., where his coterie enjoyed minibar service at the Madison), Wanda Jones and Michael Amrose founded In-Room Plus, a company based in upstate New York, dedicated to expanding and updating the norms of minibar stocking. Every hotel minibar, the company decreed, should offer the proper balance of sweet, salty, healthy, “signature,” branded, and need-fulfilling items, each with a minimum shelf life of six months, in order to generate profit and stave off crippling anomie. In-Room Plus’s philosophy manifested itself with increasing force throughout the ’90s, leading to offerings such as Pez, dog biscuits, chocolate-covered pretzels, flavored condoms, and $6 blues harmonicas on which lonesome travelers might ignite the kinds of unreasoning hatreds in their neighbors that, once kindled, last for life.