Over the years, there has been a good deal of discussion about the relationship between "vending" and "retailing." Most operators always have thought of themselves as retailers; but they also have been warned (with increasing urgency, over the past 10 or 15 years) that they must start thinking like retailers, not technicians.
And there is some confusion in the public sphere about the nature of vending. Vended foodservice often is classified as "noncommercial," apparently on the grounds that it almost always is done on the premises of an organization whose primary business is not the provision of food and beverages.
It is not clear to us that a concessionaire is any less "commercial" than any other retailer, but at the same time, no one thinks that a full-line vending installation in a plant or a college is doing exactly the same thing as the fast-food restaurant across the street -- it does not serve nor advertise to the general public, for example. Mainstream vending operators offer their service to a prospective account as an amenity that will further the client's goals, increasing morale and encouraging people to stay on site. Prospective accounts publish requests for proposals from providers of these services because they see the benefits.
This is well-known, but apparently, not to everyone. A bill -- AB 459 -- now under consideration in California's Assembly would impose strict dietary guidelines on vending conducted in state facilities. It was introduced by Assembly member Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). She explained the rationale for the measure to The Los Angeles Times: "Everyone remains free to purchase off-site and bring on-site whatever they want to consume, but the state will stop providing profiteers venues to sell unhealthy items to its workforce."
It will do this, she hopes, by requiring that at least 50% of the food offered by vending machines on state property meet "accepted nutritional guidelines" by Jan. 1, 2015, with 100% compliance demanded by January 1, 2017. As of Jan. 1, 2016, the bill also would require that 100% of beverages sold through vending machines on state property also meet "accepted nutritional guidelines."
What caught our eye in the above was the part about the "profiteers." Any company seeking a concession to provide a service on a client's premises will work with that client on designing a menu that will appeal to the people for whom it's being offered. Many clients will have opinions about what should be sold, and the concessionaire must respect them. However, sensible clients respect their concessionaires' professional experience, and will look at sales figures, listen to the clientele and propose appropriate changes. This keeps everyone happy. Of course the operation must make a profit or it could not stay in business, but we see no warrant for regarding the people who provide the desirable service as "profiteers."
Much of the vending in state and federal government locations is provided by small businesses run by blind merchants. The Randolph-Sheppard Act of 1936 (extensively modified in 1974) gives these merchants priority in bidding on services in federal facilities, which most states have duplicated in their own procurement practices. The National Association of Blind Merchants, a division of the National Federation of the Blind, represents these businesses, and it has taken notice of the California proposal.
"Blind vendors care about the health of our customers, but we cannot be bullied into accepting arbitrary and capricious mandates," said NABM president Nicky Gacos. "Whether the most vociferous advocates for these unreasonable mandates want to admit it or not, they will kill opportunities for many blind vendors."
The essential problem here is that the advocates of restrictions on vending machine menus appear to believe that consumers don't really know what they want, but approach a vending machine because they want something; so they will buy whatever is available. We have never met a vending operator who believes that. Consumers know very well that, in nearly all cases, they don't have to buy anything from a vending machine; and, if they don't find something they like, they will wait until they can walk across the street to buy it.
The fact is that since the United States passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and expanded it with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, it is illegal to sell products for human consumption that are unwholesome or adulterated. All the items forbidden by "nutrition guidelines" are safe for adults to consume; the disagreements are over proportions, details and populations like children.
We do not think it would be easy to explain to a visitor from Mars the political philosophy which insists on trusting every citizen with the responsibility of choosing the government, but not of selecting a snack and a drink.