Are Vending Machines the Next Big Thing?

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We saw it happen to food trucks.
Those street corner fixtures, branded colloquially as ‘roach coaches,’ became food world darlings. Instead of withered hot dogs of questionable origins, suddenly you could find pastured-beef burgers on brioche buns, duck-filled dumplings, goat cheese cheesecake, and sustainably-harvested fish tacos. The jangly tune of a Mr. Softee truck was replaced by twitter tweets announcing truck locations and daily specials. Combining food-savvy, tech-savvy, and political correctness, a new breed of entrepreneurs elevated humble and much-maligned street food into a full-fledged culinary phenomenon. Are vending machines next?

Moving beyond candy bars and soda
While there is still plenty of generic junk food out there, industry upstarts are are looking to upscale their offerings, hoping to capitalize on the culinary sensibilities and dietary concerns of certain market segments. There’s a vending machine that grills a hot dog, warms the bun, and dispenses a pretty tasty product complete with selected condiments, and another that bakes a pizza to order. There’s an ice cream machine that utilizes a robotic arm to custom-scoop cups and cones, a vending line of pulled pork and chicken sliders, and the Hot Nosh 24/6, bringing glatt kosher hot potato knishes to the masses (for the record, the Hot Nosh 24/6 is in fact ready to serve seven days a week, including on the Jewish Sabbath).

Soda machines are out of school cafeterias, and companies like Organic Vending, LLC and YoNaturals, Inc. have captured a share of the education market by filling their machines with baby carrots, baked pita chips, Kashi bars, organic soy milk, gluten-free cookies, and fair-trade chocolate bars. Offices and break rooms are looking to specialty coffee roasters like Tully’s, Green Mountain, and Caribou for branded vending machines that will hold their own against the quality of the neighborhood Starbucks, with greater convenience and a better price point.

New technologies bring improvements to the vending experience.
No exact change? No problem.
The new displays use LCD and touch screens. Payment can be made to debit cards and mobile phone accounts, or through customer identifying biometrics like finger-scanning vein pattern recognition systems.

The Dr. Whippy Ice Cream Machine diagnoses your mood-based ice cream needs and dispenses a dose accordingly. Dr. Whippy asks a series of questions, and using voice stress analysis, interprets the responses to gauge the user’s mood. An appropriate quantity of ice cream is dispensed based on need— just a dollop to the cheerful while sadness gets you gobs of the stuff. Therapies currently come in two flavors: triple chocolate and raspberry ripple. Another ice cream machine, the Share Happy is smile-activated. It uses facial recognition technology (the same technique that was used to analyze the Mona Lisa) to measure the user’s smile. A winning smile, as measured by the Share Happy ‘smile-o-meter,’ is rewarded with a free ice cream.

There have been techno-blunders. The Coca Cola Company’s efforts to incorporate technology into its vended beverage segment resulted in one of the company’s notable missteps. In a move that ranks up there with the New Coke fiasco, the company outfitted some of its vending machines with a temperature sensor and computer chip that allowed the machines to raise the beverage price on hot days. Demand-based price discrimination is nothing new— think of bargain matinees and the moving target of plane ticket pricing. But Coca-Cola’s strategy, expressly designed to exploit the thirst of its neediest, faithful customers, came off as especially mean-spirited, even unscrupulous. After a little roughing-up from the press (“Soda Jerks,” Miami Herald; “Coke’s Chilling Concept,” The Irish Times), the program was withdrawn. Cocoa-Cola is currently exploring less controversial innovations like the customer-centric Coca-Cola Freestyle fountain dispenser, outfitted with a touchscreen that allows consumers to select from 140 Coke-branded beverages, including sodas, waters, juices, teas, and waters, choosing and blending at will by flavor, calories, or caffeine content.

The new vending technology even addresses that most frustrating of occurrences: the candy bar or bag of chips that refuses to drop. New machines are equipped with infrared sensors that can detect whether or not a snack has been dispensed. If it’s stuck, the laser field won’t be broken by the product exiting the machine. When that happens, the customer is offered a chance to choose another snack or have their money refunded. The machine won’t eat your quarters, and you don’t even have to kick it.

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