Could Vending Machines be Next?

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We saw it happen to food trucks. Those street corner fixtures, branded colloquially as “roach coaches,” became food world darlings in 2009. 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.

Could the same thing happen to vending machines?

The technology is there.
There’s a vending machine that grills a hot dog, warms the bun, and dispenses a pretty tasty product complete with selected condiments. Another utilizes a robotic arm to custom-scoop ice cream cups and cones. WonderPizza is looking to revolutionize the category with its high speed (under 2 minutes) baked-to-order pizza. And specialty coffee roasters Tully’s, Green Mountain, and Caribou are all rolling out branded vending machines that they claim will hold their own against the quality of your neighborhood Starbucks, with greater convenience and a better price point.

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. Now 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roughing-up from the press (“Soda Jerks,” Miami Herald; “Coke’s Chilling Concept,” The Irish Times), the program was withdrawn.

Coca-Cola Freestyle touch screen

Coca-Cola Freestyle touch screen

Cocoa-Cola is currently exploring less controversial innovations, like the customer-centric Coca-Cola Freestyle fountain dispenser. The sleek new units being tested are touch screen operated, allowing consumers to select from 140 Coca-Cola branded beverages, including sodas, waters, juices, teas,and sparkling beverages, choosing and blending at will by flavor, calories, or caffeine content, all of which are displayed.

While there is still plenty of generic junk food out there, recent innovations have some small upstarts hoping to capitalize on the culinary and dietary concerns of certain market segments. Companies like Organic Vending, LLC and YoNaturals, Inc. have captured a share of the education market by filling their machines with baked pita chips and Kashi bars, organic soy milk, gluten-free cookies, and fair-trade chocolate bars. At some schools, parents can log on to view the contents of the vending machine, and limit which snacks and how many they’d like available to their kids. While the technology currently relies on student ID cards or PIN numbers to identify the user, biometrics, like Hitachi’s finger-scanning vein pattern recognition system, are on their way.

Kosher Vending Industries, LLC has gone after the kosher market for vended goods with their Hot Nosh 24/6. The nation’s first glatt kosher vending machine began dispensing hot potato knishes to residents, doctors, and visitors at New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center in 2007, and the company has since added locations at ball parks, malls, Jewish day schools, and along the New York State Thruway between Brooklyn and the Catskill Mountains. Cute name aside, the Hot Nosh 24/6 is in fact ready to serve seven days a week, including on the Jewish Sabbath.

And no more kicking the machine– the new vending technology addresses that most frustrating of occurrences: the candy bar or bag of chips that refuses to drop. Newer machines are equipped with infrared sensors that can detect whether or not a snack has been dispensed. If it’s stuck, the machine will give a few extra tries to shake it loose and release the snack. If that fails, it offers the customer a chance to choose another snack or gives a refund.

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