At the height of the full-line vending revolution, almost three and a half decades ago, this industry was a darling of securities analysts and appeared to have the world by the tail. For a variety of reasons, though, vending operators (in common with most American businesses) rethought their assumptions and altered their direction during the 1970s. Many have forgotten the days when vending was imagined by some to be the next big thing in food, rivaling the still-new "fast food" restaurants.
We had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time at restaurant industry conventions in those days, and we recall encountering two persistent difficulties in talking about vending to producers of food who were not presently addressing our market. The first, more innocent one was simple ignorance of the progress that vending had made over the preceding decade. We'd see an attractive convenience item - in those days, more likely supplied in bulk pack than individually wrapped , and we'd ask whether the supplier had thought about making it available for vending. The response we often got was simple puzzlement: "Vending? You mean those little machines that give you a handful of peanuts?"
The other response was less common, and more annoying. Some companies that had identified and addressed niches in the restaurant business were, in fact, supplying a great deal of product to vending commissary operators. This was well-known to their sales forces. Too often, though, upper management refused to recognize it. They envisioned their products adorning the menus of fine dining establishments, not being consumed from vending machines by blue-collar workers.
In the early 1970s, the spotlight turned away from vending to newer, faster-growing businesses, and pioneering attempts to merge vending and manual foodservice concepts faded away with the (apparently) moribund "smokestack" industries. What with one thing and another, smaller workplaces began to attract our industry's attention.
All the while, of course, vending operators not only were selling food (more every year), but also were educating the American public at work to the benefits of individually-wrapped pre-prepared foods at home. A decade's experience with microwave ovens in vending locations bore fruit when the convenience store industry entered its growth mode, and a whole new market for single-serving products took shape.
We sometimes have complained that vendors don't receive the credit they deserve for their groundbreaking efforts with food. But it is becoming clear that those efforts have not gone unrewarded. VT editors attending foodservice shows today are finding suppliers who are aware of the ability of vending machines to do full justice to their products, and eager to see them go at it.
At the same time, consumers seem ever more receptive to the benefits of fast access to good food at any hour of the day or night, and much less alarmed by the supposed dehumanizing effects of getting that access through a machine. In retrospect, it seems likely that the suspicion, sometimes verging on hostility, to food vending machines in the late 1960s was a symptom of the malaise that set in as the postwar economic glow faded away. Despite the rocky conditions today, Americans now are more confident in our ability to compete and cooperate in the global market, on even terms. And so there is less nostalgia for the small-town past of (usually inaccurate) memory.
Changes often occur so gradually but continually that the observer can have a hard time perceiving how dramatic their cumulative effect has been. Prewrapped single-serve food has assumed a prominence that would have been inconceivable 30 years ago; innovative food producers tend naturally to think of it first, when developing new items.
We think all of this is having a very positive effect on vending, so much so that self-critical operators may not be aware of just how positive it is. While it is unlikely that the majority of consumers even now regard making a purchase from a cold food machine as a fine dining experience, they have never been more receptive to its convenience, nor more willing to pay a fair price for value received.
And vending just may be the next big thing in food!