Joe Gilbert has had a front-row seat at the debut of some of the most transformational advances in vending during his half-century in equipment distribution. As the VE South vice-president celebrates the 50-year milestone with a nod to the past, he's committed to helping operators continue to advance by adopting the latest wave of high-tech innovations in machine design coming down the pike. "I have seen the industry grow tremendously over the years," Gilbert told VT. "When I started, candy and pastry machines used a sliding chute to handle the coins; it only accepted nickels and dimes, and was limited in pricing to a maximum 25¢ per vend."
The vending distribution pioneer witnessed the start of a flurry of innovation in payment technology and machine design in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the introduction of the all-coin manual recorder (ACMR) on National Vendors mechanical cigarette and candy machines. It accepted quarters, nickels and dimes and allowed pricing up to 60¢, and later, as high as $1.25.
"It was easy to change prices with a little green wheel with indentations," Gilbert recalled. "It was spring-loaded and allowed you to set any price you wanted in nickel increments. This was a big change for most operators, when candy and pastry machines were all manual."
He also remembers when The Vendo Co. was the largest supplier of vending machines. Vendo was one of the leaders in standardizing machine cabinet height, for uniformly banking "full-line" equipment; one of its proposed styles stood 79" high. Vendo's machines were finished in light beige paint. National Vendors was one of the leaders in deciding on a 72" standard cabinet height, as was implemented with its very popular Crown Series.
"The Crown machines had changeable panels in the front to make them more attractive," Gilbert recalled. "This was the beginning of a revolution that changed the face of vending."
The modularity that allowed styling modification extended to other features as well, and the line thus was well-placed to benefit from the arrival of the bill validator in the early 1980s. "With introduction of the bill acceptor and the new technology, National far outpaced the competition and became a leader of innovation at that time," Gilbert reminisced.
He had witnessed a similar dramatic transformation in the amusements side of the business with the introduction of bill validators on jukeboxes. "These allowed us to go from 10¢ a play to two for a quarter. You also could program the machine to offer 10 plays for $1, which made the transition to higher prices easier," he explained. "Sales increased almost immediately, doubling or even tripling in some cases. A common service call was caused by a bill acceptor filling up, so it would not take any more banknotes."
Gilbert's introduction to vending occurred long before the official start of his own equipment distribution career. He was born in 1939, the oldest of three sons; and at the tender age of three, he began riding along with his father, Jack, who worked as a route collector for a Brooklyn, NY, jukebox operator.
The young Gilbert's job was to remove the 78-rpm records from their paper sleeves and match each record with a title-strip so his father could change the music selection at each location.
"He only changed three records per stop," Gilbert recalled. "As I got older, he taught me how to count and roll the money, mostly nickels and dimes because it cost a nickel to play a song.The rest of my childhood was a learning experience with everything my father did."
The family relocated to New York's Catskill Mountains region when Joe was 12. The senior Gilbert worked long distance two and a half days a week as a route collector for Union Automatic, a large amusement company based in Brooklyn. He serviced 45 stops, spanning Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and Manhattan's lower east side.
Joe joined his father on the route during school vacations and summers, learning the ins and outs of coin-op and establishing his own close ties with the location owners.
Back at home, Joe worked at some of the famed Catskills resorts throughout his late teens, both as a bellhop and in foodservice. That experience sparked his interest in pursuing a degree in restaurant and hotel management, following a six-month stint with the National Guard in 1959.
Gilbert's first job in foodservice was as a management trainee for the Chock full o' Nuts coffee chain. He was hired by baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who at the time was the company's vice-president and personnel director.
Two weeks later, Joe's father suffered his first heart attack." I went to the hospital and all he could think of was that somebody had to do his route," Joe recalled. "So I quit my job, and for the next three years, I drove his route -- and I've remained in the industry ever since."
It was a separate family tie that officially launched the young Gilbert's vending distribution career in 1964. He joined his cousin's business, Atlantic New York, which was the exclusive Seeburg jukebox distributor in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He began in the parts department, and moved quickly up the ranks to parts manager. In 1967, he was promoted to salesman, representing Seeburg jukeboxes, Gottlieb pinball games and Williams shuffle alleys, along with DuGrenier cigarette machines and Bally coffee venders.
"I can remember my first Amusement and Music Operators Association [at that time called the Music Operators Association -- ed.] show in Chicago in 1967," Gilbert reflected. "The Gottlieb company sent a limo to the airport for us and then took us on a factory tour and then to the Hilton in downtown Chicago. I was quite impressed."
After five years with Atlantic New York, Gilbert joined National Vendors, where his territory spanned Connecticut, Rhode Island and half of New York state, from the Tappan Zee bridge in New York City's northwestern outskirts to the Canadian border and west to Utica.
"National was the leading manufacturer of cigarette and 64" soda and coffee machines," recalled Gilbert. "I was the youngest salesperson that they had hired, and in four years I more than doubled the sales they'd had. They then offered to transfer me to Florida and the Caribbean."
Gilbert was honored as National's salesman of the year in 1975." That was a year of recession, and things were not good for vending," Gilbert remembered. "I happened to pursue a lead and wound up getting an order of 145 machines for Cape Kennedy. I also worked with an operating company called Wometco and received an order for 350 machines for Disney World in Orlando. Between those orders and other business, I was able to be one of the five top salesmen in the country."
The vending veteran soon committed to taking an active role in support of the industry as a whole, and joined the Automatic Merchandising Association of Florida. He was elected to its board of directors, on which he has served ever since.
Gilbert's career next shifted in 1981, when he signed on as general manager for Belam, a New York-based amusement equipment distributor with an operation in Miami.
The company enlisted the distribution pro's expertise to expand beyond amusements into vending. "With my contacts, I was able to add Automatic Products equipment and the Litton oven lines," Gilbert told VT. "After acquiring those principals, and with seven years of calling on customers in Florida, we were able to gain a comfortable foothold as the number two supplier of vending equipment in Florida after National Vendors."
In 1984, Gilbert left Belam to work for Rowe International as its southern region vice-president, where he oversaw five offices. After two years and a change of ownership, he moved on to Nintendo as the videogame giant's northeastern regional manager. He put that experience to good use in his next job as sales manager for Williams Electronics, another leader in amusement equipment.
The coin-op pro went on to join Top Distributors in Rochester, NY, where he helped develop an automatic steel-tip dart game before returning to Chicago as sales manager for Japanese amusement equipment manufacturer Jaleco.
photos | UPS AND DOWNS: At left, Joe Gilbert pitches in to clear up wreckage left by Hurricane Wilma late in 1985. The storm did a great deal of damage in Florida, and destroyed VE South’s facilities. The company rebuilt promptly, and opened a new, larger headquarters in 2006. At right, Gilbert reviews trends with Betson Enterprises’ Steven Betti at a NAMA trade show.
Gilbert's career path led him back to National Vendors in 1993, when the machine manufacturer set out to start a new division called Glasco. "It was formed to go after operators who bought their equipment from local distributors," he recalled. "At the time, National only sold direct to the operator without any middlemen."
He was hired as vice-president of the new division and, within three months, had 28 distributors on board. "We became very successful and as a large corporation, they decided to transfer me to Florida, with continuing responsibility for sales in South America," Gilbert told VT.
A few years later, Vendors Exchange, the Cleveland-based dealer in and remanufacturer of full-line vending machines and replacement parts, approached Gilbert about opening a distributorship in Florida. He seized the opportunity, and came aboard to establish VE South in Fort Lauderdale. That company just marked its 17th year in business. The distributorship has nine employees providing products, parts and equipment to operators throughout Florida, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
A STAR IS BORN
One of Gilbert's proudest accomplishments is VE South's Star Food machine. The automated reimbursable school meal program was conceived by Bob Gottlieb, VE South's director of educational services, and was launched in the school foodservice market seven years ago.
The Star Food machine was designed specifically for schools participating in the federal school lunch and/or breakfast program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under that program, all the students in a school are enrolled in an on-site computer database networked to terminals on the cafeteria serving line. Student eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, based on family income, is stored along with the name of each participant.
The cafeteria's manual operation requires only that the student give his or her name to the cafeteria attendant at the terminal, who enters that name to bring up a photo verifying the identity of the individual. Gilbert explained that the rules of the USDA program require that two forms of identification be presented; and on the manual line, those are the student's name and computer-generated picture.
Star Foods developed a vending machine controller that, like the terminals on the serving line, is networked to the central computer; but, instead of a cafeteria attendant matching a photograph with a student, the student simply enters his or her birthday on the machine's keypad. The computer authenticates the match, and enables the machine to deliver a free, reduced-price or full-price meal based on the individual student's account record.
The cafeteria personnel prepare meals ahead of the serving period, package them in bags and load them into the machine. It takes a student only 20 seconds or so to complete a transaction, a great improvement over standing in a long serving line -- especially in large schools with short meal periods. This convenience increases student participation, Gilbert said, which accounts for the widespread acceptance of the Star Food program by schools around the country.
VE South is the exclusive provider of Star Food machines, having designed and developed the program as a separate entity from parent company Vendors Exchange. Gilbert developed the infrastructure, policies and marketing program for Star Food and assists Gottlieb with sales.
Star Food machines are currently in 24 states and Washington, DC, with more than 500 machines now on location.
"The Star Food program is an important element to VE South and its overall success," Gilbert remarked. "We also continue with the basic mantra of trying to 'feed more kids.' This was a desire on the part of all of us: to make a difference in kids' lives. It is our legacy, and we are very proud of what we accomplished. We feel we are the leader in this niche of helping to provide reimbursable meals to students around the U.S., and we are continuing to implement the program in large and small districts across every state."
Gilbert pointed to the growing prevalence of cashless payment as one of the key technologies pushing the industry forward, and noted that Star Food machines have benefited from the movement.
Bright, Networked Future
The vending distribution veteran anticipates that the adoption of touchscreen displays that provide nutritional information to customers -- like those featured on Vendors Exchange's retrofittable VE Connect vending machine door and MIND (Making Informed Nutritional Decisions) device -- will be the "law of the land" in the not-too-distant future.
photos | VARIED CAREER: Joe Gilbert, pictured at left with wife Roberta, has worked in many segments of the coin-op industry. Center, he chats with Al Miniaci (left) of Paramount Vending; right, he graces the cover of Bull's-Eye News with Top Distributing's autoscoring steel-tip darts game.
Gilbert also singled out the coffee quality delivered by today's single-cup pods, capsules and bean-grinding bulk-load machines as a significant industry advancement. "Today's single-cup coffees have given the industry the validity of great product," he commented. "No longer do we serve 'dirty dish water,' as most of the customers called it 40 years ago.
"I still get excited about the opportunities that are coming out all the time and what lies ahead," Gilbert summed up. "I hope that I will be around a lot longer to see even more changes that will put vending in the forefront of merchandising to the public. Look around; who thought you could sell electronics for over $100 through a vending machine in an airport, or makeup from a machine in a New York City subway station based on the color of your clothing? The future is now, and I am happy to still be involved."