It began with the cupcake phenomenon of 2012. Sprinkles Cupcakes in Beverly Hills, California launched their first Cupcake ATM. The Sprinkles brand was booming, and customers were willing to wait hours in line for their confections.
The concept was simple - a 24-hour ATM that provided a full day’s worth of cupcake goodness. Whether you don’t want to wait in line at the actual bakery, or you’re having a late-night cupcake craving, with the swipe of a credit card you can get a cupcake on demand. Sprinkles now sells over 600 cupcakes at their 3 locations throughout the US.
Fast forward to 2017, and vending machines have evolved to more than just cupcakes. Now you can get a hot pizza in just 30 seconds or a warm wrapped burrito with your choice of toppings.
You can even get a refreshing Jamba Juice smoothie faster than you can say “I’ll have a Mango-A-Go-Go Smoothie to go, please”.
As food and restaurant technology progresses, there has become a higher demand for automated food services. Before investing thousands of dollars for a gourmet vending machine, it’s important evaluate the pros and cons of this decision, and see if this is a trend that will stay.
Cost of Maintenance
While a gourmet vending machine may seem like a hands-free job, there is still maintenance required.
For example, perishable food needs to be replaced often. For example, Sprinkles restocks their Cupcake ATM at least twice a day. Other gourmet vending machines feature organic foods that have short-lived expiration dates and need to be thrown out or donated to food banks before they spoil. Between replacing food, cleaning, and general maintenance, these machines will still require labor.
The Health Food Craze
The vending machine industry as a whole is facing more strict laws regarding what kinds of foods they offer. Due to the increased rates of obesity, local and state governments are beginning to make laws that regulate what kinds of foods are sold in vending machines. The Maryland Healthy Vending Machine Act was created in October of 2016 and required that 75% of food and beverages in vending machines must meet “healthy food standards”.
Glendale, California has also adapted a similar law, where 40% of food and beverages in vending machines must be healthy. One specific note is that snacks are not allowed to be over 250 calories, and half of the beverages must be water.
While these laws may only apply to vending machines on specific state owned property, it appears that the vending machine industry could become disrupted and put a hold on the emergence of gourmet vending machines for restaurants.
Although it appears that big name brands are beginning to create the vending machines, they do not all have the same end goal. For example, when Sprinkles launched their ATM, they had the goal of expanding their sales. Instead of limiting their sales to a standard hours, they wanted to offer their product 24 hours a day.
In contrast, McDonald’s has recently launched their one day Big Mac ATM. Although this also sounds like a method to boost sales, the Big Mac ATM does not actually accept money. McDonald’s launched their first ATM in the end of January in Boston, but instead of using a credit card, customers exchanged tweets for a burger. This was used as a large marketing promotion to bring attention to the McDonald’s brand on social media. Burgers were not made in the ATM - instead employees from a local franchise would periodically load the machine with burgers.
While somewhat of a social media ploy, this raises the question of the complexity of the technology used. The machine itself does not make the burgers, but it serves as a warming tray. Staff still has to manually make the burger, package it, and fill the machine. Unlike a cupcake, a burger has more strict guidelines to stay fresh. It also requires a higher turnover to prevent excess food from spoiling. Although it feels like a step up in technology because you can order food without customer interaction, is it really a plausible idea fully expand?
A Polarizing Customer Market
In addition to these health food laws, gourmet vending machines are catering for a polarizing customer market. They are mainly appealing to the millennial generation who are fascinated by new and emerging technology. In addition, they also have high standards for the food they’re eating. They value fresh foods, farm to table experiences, and minimal waste of product as demonstrated through the root to leaf trend.
So although millennials enjoy seeing their cupcake come out of an electronic machine, this machine will only stay as a trend. Customers are becoming smarter about what they eat and where it’s from. While mysterious and magical food ATM’s are fun, at the end of the day, customers will prefer to spend the extra couple dollars to eat a fresh meal.
These gourmet vending machines and food ATMs are becoming a social media craze. Everyone wants a photo next to one to say that they have eaten a Big Mac from a machine.
But this trend might be a short lived one. For companies, it is not a fully hands-off concept due to the need to replace food and maintain the machine. Also, with the higher rates of obesity in America, new laws are being made to regulate the type of food being sold from vending machines.
The Future of Restaurant Vending Machines
There doesn't seem to be a clear reason why companies are creating these ATM’s. Sprinkles is trying to boost their sales, but McDonald’s is giving away free burgers in exchange for more publicity on social media. With a polarizing market who values both speed of service and clean eating, the trend of gourmet vending machines are sending mixed messages to target consumers.
So when it comes to your restaurant, it might not be time to start developing the next magical “salad in a box” or “poke bowl” vending machine, and keep creating fresh wholesome foods.
What do you think about gourmet vending machines? Does their unique marketing strategy outweigh the associated costs? Comment below with your thoughts!