Blind Vendors Throng Atlantic City For First Mini-BLAST At Vistar NE Show

Posted On: 11/26/2019

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DAVE DENOTARIS
WES FISHER
NICKY GACOS
 BROOKE LIERMEN
TERRY SMITH
LEADING BY EXAMPLE: Melba Taylor (l.), a blind entrepreneur in Maryland and NABM board member, joined by NAMB president Nicky Gacos, presents Wittern Group chief executive Heido Chico with inaugural Frances Lorraine Goranson Award for being a pioneer who has charted the way for future women executives in the industry.
BREAKING BARRIERS: Above, Nicky Gacos introduces Malcolm Little, a martial arts expert and up-and-coming motivational speaker, who inspired the crowd with a hands-on session titled "Use Your Inner Strength to Break Barriers." He invited participants to break boards, martial arts style - with the "boards" representing the perceived barriers standing in the way of achieving their goals.
HERSHEY KISSED: Flowers Foods' Jeff Mayhew hosts sample session of new Mrs. Freshley's Deluxe line cobranded with Hershey for (l. to r.) Darlene Burke, Carrie Reuter and Peggy Bausman of O'Conor Coffee Shop (Parkville, MD). The new snack cakes come in 3.5-oz. triple chocolate cakes -- chocolate flavored crème-filled cakes made with Hershey's cocoa -- and 4.5-oz. Reese's peanut butter cupcakes, iced chocolate cakes filled with peanut butter and topped with Reese's Piece. The snack cakes have a 45-day shelf life.

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ -- More than 200 blind entrepreneurs from 28 states came together for two days of education and networking and a look at the industry's latest food and beverage offerings during the National Association of Blind Merchants' first-ever Mini BLAST (Business Leadership and Superior Training) conference. The event was held from September 25 through 27 at Harrah's Resort & Casino in Atlantic City, NJ, in partnership with the newly-formed Vistar Northeast division's first-ever combined Buying Show.

NABM, a division of the National Federation of the Blind, serves visually impaired businesspeople who are either self-employed or part of Randolph-Sheppard's vending program. The 1936 law gives preference to blind people in bidding on the provision of vending services on government property. In addition to blind vendors, Mini BLAST participants included representatives from the state business enterprise programs that support them. Also attending were some of the industry's biggest suppliers, along with on-trend newcomers, who occupied 180 booths and showcased the latest food, beverages, equipment and technology.

Vistar, a division of Performance Food Group and the nation's largest product distributor to the vending trade, announced in January that it has combined its New England, New York, Ohio and mid-Atlantic teams to form Vistar Northeast.

NABM had not planned for another BLAST conference until its scheduled spring event. But when Vistar Northeast officials presented NABM president Nicky Gacos the opportunity to hold a "mini conference" in conjunction with their show, he accepted, and set out to put together a small conference. He hoped to assemble 75 to 100 blind entrepreneurs.

"What was intended to be a 'Mini BLAST' turned out to be not so 'mini' after all," Gacos commented in his welcome address to the larger-than-anticipated crowd. "When blind people and state licensing agencies get together, things happen, building relationships and partnerships. Training is so important, as the world is changing all the time, including the growth of micromarkets and grab-and-go, which is more like run-and-go for many these days. We need to be aware of the latest trends, and we have people here who have traveled from as far as California, Oregon, Arizona and Florida to take advantage of a full agenda of training and to see what's new to stay on the cutting edge and take advantage of specials on the show floor."

HAIL TO THE CHIEF

Among the many industry leaders presenting at the Mini BLAST was keynoter Heidi Chico, chief executive of the Wittern Group, a leading vending machine manufacturing company, which her grandfather founded in 1931. NABM surprised Chico with its inaugural Frances Lorraine Goranson Award for being a pioneer who has charted the way for future women executives in the industry. An Iowa State University graduate, Chico has dedicated more than three decades of her life to the family-owned business. She has held various leadership roles with the National Automatic Merchandising Association, including serving as chair of the NAMA board of directors in 2018. She also played an integral role in launching NAMA's WIN (Women in the Industry) Initiative.

Upon presenting the award to Chico, Melba Taylor, a blind entrepreneur in Maryland and NABM board member, said Chico's success is predicated upon a very simple concept: "Don't ask anyone to do something you aren't willing to do yourself. Own your own destiny."

She explained that Frances Lorraine Goranson, for whom the award is named, certainly owned her own destiny. She graduated from the South Dakota School for the Blind in 1938. She was aware of the Randolph-Sheppard Act, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed into law in 1936. She recognized the potential and set her sights on being part of the program. Two years later, she fulfilled that dream when she assumed management of a newly-created vending facility at the Huron, SD, U.S. Post Office, becoming the first known woman Randolph-Sheppard vendor in the country. Goranson went on to become active in the National Federation of the Blind and, in 1942, was elected to the NFB board of directors.

"Heidi Chico is an example of what women in our industry aspire to be, and she is an inspiration to our women blind entrepreneurs," said Gacos. "She is a friend to the blindness community because of her unique insight and understanding of the important role blind entrepreneurs play in the convenience services industry today in this country."

Chico began her keynote address by stating that when she entered the family business in the 1980s, she didn't know a single female vending operator. "Now I see more women and people of color, and there's more diversity right here in this room than I've seen with any other group in this industry," she remarked. "Be proud of that, and help spread your approach to diversification."

Her advice to blind entrepreneurs, based on her own business and personal success and continued focus on self-improvement, included taking the time to know what they want to achieve, then look 10 years out, write down goals and prioritize the steps needed to make them happen.

"One of the keys to my success is believing in myself and not blaming others for my shortcomings," she continued. "Instead of accusing others, I look within. We have total control of our own narratives. Never give up. If you fail, it doesn't mean you stop trying."

Chico added that one of her personal goals is to be a positive influence on others and help others become better people. "Accept others for who they are, and recognize that; and be willing to learn and commit to new ideas," she advised.

POSITIVE THINKING

Another inspirational keynoter was David DeNotaris, a nationally known speaker and radio host and chief inspiration officer of Sky's the Limit Communications. DeNotaris was formerly executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Bureau of Blindness.

He inspired the crowd with his message about overcoming obstacles, rebounding from setbacks and facing fears. DeNotaris was born with a rare eye disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. He recalled how his doctors wrote his life off, recommending to his family that they put him in an institution since he'd never amount to anything. Through the hard work, dedication and creative problem-solving skills, he overcame his obstacles and devotes his focus to stimulating human potential in others.

DeNotaris emphasized that the world as we know it continues to change rapidly, and blind entrepreneurs need to change with it. Among the top skills needed to achieve continued success is to be great notetaker, he said. "There's nothing more mentally fatiguing than holding onto an unfinished task," he emphasized. He also advised blind entrepreneurs to surround themselves with an "amazing network of people.

"Being positive will not guarantee success, but being negative will guarantee you won't succeed," he continued. "Stop negative stinking thinking. Our attitudes are contagious. My mom said blindness will make you bitter or make you better, and you better pick the right one. Always ask yourself, 'What else can I create? What else can I become?'"

DeNotaris also encouraged the audience members to be curious and "get fascinated, not frustrated. Everything is hard until it's easy. Keep learning, reaching and becoming."

He added that innovators have insight, not eyesight. "We can't be worriers; we need to be warriors. Focus on ability, not inability. The more you learn, the more you earn," he continued. "It's all about persistence and determination. What they say will not stop you; what you say will. Have an attitude of gratitude when you get up each day and walk like you have somewhere to go. There's no problem we can't transform into a possibility."

Chris Stave, director of business development for Parlevel Systems, a provider of hardware and software management and sales tools for vending and micromarkets, emphasized the importance of operators keeping up with the increasing rate of technological advance to remain competitive and maximize their success.

"Two decades ago, there were no connected vending machines, cashless vending or dynamic routing and service alerts," he noted. "The mantra then was 'clean, filled and working.'"

"Around 2000, telemetry basically put a cellphone into the machine, so the operator could know what's going on; and operators started adding another device for cashless," he continued. "Now 40% to 50% of vending machines are connected. Route order prekitting has become the norm and changed everything; we can sell a wider variety of products when each order is tailored to each machine and micromarket, based on what's selling. Since the early 2000s, with new software and these technologies, machines are smarter and easier to use. Operators know what's in the machines and sales are up. Stops are down an average 40% through use of technology."

He continued along the technology timeline to 2010 with the introduction of micromarkets, and noted that there are some 35,000 of them in field in the U.S. today. "They're taking off like wildfire, with a 30% to 100% sales lift when you replace vending machines with micromarkets. Micromarkets increase consumer satisfaction and engagement. We're forced to be retailers and it's driving revenue," he stated. "I want everyone in this room to begin to take control of your businesses with technology and take a careful look at what's out there to assist you. Your competitors have all adopted a whole suite of new technology. The price has come down. Cashless is becoming the norm, and you need to accept it as soon as possible if you haven't already. With the younger crowd, if you don't accept cashless and mobile payment, they will walk away. Once you take the first step, it keeps growing."

He added that technology keeps becoming more intuitive, including the development of accessible phone apps that can help blind entrepreneurs navigate their vending management systems.

"What's going on? Who's doing what if you have employees? Are you offering loyalty programs?" he summed up. "Cashless is critical - but cash isn't going way. Be sure you take it. It will be important part of your business for years to come. Investigate before you invest. We are here to help."

Kurk Johnson of Three Square Markets reported to the Mini BLAST participants that his company has been working closely with visually impaired operators to make its micromarket systems fully accessible to them by using voice prompts and commands, for tasks ranging from purchasing equipment and products to running the business on the back end. The app will also facilitate the purchase process for sight-impaired customers. He said that Three Square is on track to achieve this goal by the end of the year.

STATE REPORTS

Representatives from state licensing agencies for the Randolph-Sheppard program provided updates on their states' respective activities. Alabama's representative reported that the agency recently secured funding for its operators to install card readers. In Arizona, the SLA representative reported that the state just placed a 20-year-old blind entrepreneur, the youngest in Arizona.

In Florida, there are 144 facilities operated by blind entrepreneurs, and the state's eighth micromarket was set to open soon after the Mini BLAST. Eleven blind entrepreneurs were licensed through the Randolph-Sheppard program in 2018, and all were placed in facilities by May 2019.

In Kentucky, the SLA is working with colleges across the state to spread the word about the Randolph-Sheppard program and to develop training programs with community colleges.

The SLA representative from Mississippi said the agency is working on securing its first prison commissary to be run by a blind vendor, and North Carolina's SLA representative also reported moving toward securing prison commissaries for its operators.

In New Jersey, the SLA is exploring ways to increase opportunities for blind vendors to obtain the vending business at state parks. Also significant in the state is that is that currently there are three women in training.

California's state licensing agency reported that a blind vendor is opening a business at the SLA's first federal prison, and that the biggest challenge is not having enough licensed blind vendors to serve the available locations where there are openings.

Noteworthy in Tennessee is that blind vendors are running 49 jail commissaries throughout the state, and almost every one of them reportedly earns six figures. There currently are 103 licensed blind vendors in the state.

In Oklahoma, the state licensing agency is working with blind vendors to promote selling T-shirts as a novelty at the highway rest stops they serve.

"I'm excited to hear about states like Mississippi getting into commissaries and Oklahoma working on tourism," Gacos commented. "The concern is that the number of licensed blind operators is decreasing. California has only 89, and New York is in the 50s. We need to evaluate what to go after in the private sector, and expand opportunities to get blind people employed."

John Murn of RSA Management Group concurred, emphasizing that the opportunities for growth for blind vendors will be in the private sector, given federal downsizing decreasing the availability of sites that can be served under Randolph-Sheppard. RSA has locations available through national contracts.

"You need to look for new opportunities," he stressed, adding that members of his RSA buying group get rebates from manufacturers and that they should be taking advantage of that opportunity.

"You have to look at your business and how to make more revenue. Look at nanomarkets, look at Amazon Go as a competitor," he commented. "You have to be proactive, look five years down the line at unattended retail and get ahead of the curve."

BIG PICTURE

National Automatic Merchandising Association government affairs manager Wes Fisher reviewed some of the legislative issues on a national level that are front and center for the convenience services industry, including some that are specific to blind entrepreneurs. They include NAMA's work with the U.S. Mint and U.S. Bureau of Engraving to ensure that currency is accessible to the blind, and its work with as part of a coalition led by the National Federation of the Blind, restaurants, fuel retailers, city governments and trucking firms to oppose the commercialization of interstate rest areas as Congress considers new legislation aimed at funding improvements to infrastructure.

The coalition's argument against the proposal to allow the sale of food, fuel and other commercial services at interstate rest areas is that it would drain local businesses of customers, communities of jobs and city governments of tax revenue by putting established businesses in direct competition with state governments. At the same time, it would give state governments an unfair competitive advantage by granting them direct access to highway motorists.

On other topics, Fisher reported that NAMA has been in discussions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to establish a federal definition of a micromarket, modeled after legislation that has been passed on the state level in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Florida. He added that a big win for the industry was the Environmental Protection Agency's delaying the refrigerant transition for vending machines from the original Jan. 1, 2019 compliance date as NAMA and machine manufacturers continue to work toward alternatives and a plan to phase them in.

At the state and local level, NAMA has helped defeat several sugar-sweetened beverage bills, and Fisher reported that this year marked the lowest number in nine years of efforts to enact such legislation - but single-use plastic ban proposals are taking the their place.

BREAKING BARRIERS

Malcolm Little, a martial arts expert and up-and-coming motivational speaker, inspired the crowd with a hands-on session titled "Use Your Inner Strength to Break Barriers." His message was that anyone with a big goal will confront adversities that must be overcome. The keys, he said, are focus, faith and follow-through.

"Focus on what you want, and keep going until what you're trying to achieve shows up in your life," he advised. "You need have faith and believe in what you're trying to do, or it won't happen. Sometimes you have to believe in someone else's belief in you until you can believe in yourself. If you haven't tapped into your greatness, you haven't heard or believed it; but you can change that We have to take 100% responsibility for our lives. We can always find a way to go around, under, over or through whatever barriers are in front of us. We need an unshakable belief in ourselves that it's possible to create the future you want to see and shift the narrative."

Little then invited participants to break boards, martial arts style - with the "boards" representing the perceived barriers standing in the way of achieving their goals. "Focus, believe you can overcome it and follow through by breaking the board," he coached. "I've seen lives changed through this act. It's powerful if you allow it to be. Make this a life-changing moment."

LOYALTY: REAPING THE REWARDS

Hector Benavides of Connectivity Services (Denver, CO) encouraged blind entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of offering their customers a loyalty program, which Connectivity Services works with NABM to facilitate making the process seamless.

"Every supermarket and c-store tries to reward customers to create habits of loyalty in their consumption, and you should, too," he said. "You can offer a loyalty program, such as 'buy four get one free,' paid 100% by suppliers. But you can't do it if you're not networked and if you aren't using a vending management system. Once you have a VMS and are connected, we automatically know to rebate the customer and you receive the full cost for the product upfront. It drives sales; the cost to you is zero, and we manage the program. The final step, once you're connected and offering a loyalty program, is to make money from advertising on machines and micromarkets."

He urged operators to start at phase one, by simply introducing themselves to him so he can guide them through getting started. "I should see every one of you in the next day," he said.

"Pick one account to start with," Benavides suggested. "You give employees a card and they register online. They put $10 on the card and you get prepaid that $10; 11/2% of everything that goes through the loyalty program comes back to their Business Enterprise Programs, to build tools to be more profitable."

RANDOLPH-SHEPPARD ADVOCATES

Jesse Hartle, Randolph-Sheppard Program manager for the Rehabilitation Services Administration, urged BLAST participants to reach out if they see another vendor struggling. "If one vendor needs a little more training, it can have an impact on all of you," he stressed. "Federal employees jump around between buildings, and one blind vendor falling short looks bad for Randolph-Sheppard as a whole. It must be a high standard we set, that some may never reach, but that must not be because no one in this program expects them to succeed. They're forming impressions of whether people are being properly trained or not, and we have to show that it's a viable program. We're all in this together. There may be hardships for some, but we have to have tough conversations with one another over performance."

Christine Grassman, Randolph-Sheppard specialist, Rehabilitation Services Administration, is a conflict resolution specialist. She explained the process for blind vendors to follow if they have an issue that they believe may require arbitration, which may be with another vendor, or with a state licensing or federal agency.

Jim McCarthy, Randolph-Sheppard Specialist Rehabilitation Services Administration, added that the Rehabilitation Services Administration is now fully staffed to conduct arbitrations, which had not been the case until recently.The process begins with asking for a hearing before requesting arbitration. "If you think you have a grievance, ask for a hearing," he advised. "You may know that you don't like what's happening, but maybe not how, or whether, it's violated the Randolph-Sheppard Act. We hope you don't need us, but we're here for you."

Brooke Liermen, attorney with Brown, Goldstein and Levy, provided an update on current Randolph-Sheppard litigation and her firm's work to ensure that the intent of the law is realized in enlarging opportunities for blind vendors, including cases involving military bases that have not offered priority to blind vendors. Some of these may reach the Supreme Court.

MICROMARKET OPPORTUNITY

Dave Mandella, a vending veteran who most recently worked at Accent Food Services (Pflugerville, TX) and now is an industry consultant, was one of several Mini BLAST speakers to advise the operators in attendance to consider micromarkets.

"You serve government sites, where there's less shrink than average and most of your customers don't worry about price points," he said. "Micromarkets have great margins. In some cases, you can shut a cafeteria and replace it with one or more micromarkets. People can pay with their credit cards, market cards and phones, and they spend more when it's cashless. There are more choices, and room for bigger packages, than with vending, and digital signs to promote what you want to sell."

He added that micromarkets offer a way to sell quality hot beverages to today's large base of consumers who are regular, loyal coffee drinkers. "With government, county and city workers, you can get $1.79 all day long for a Keurig or single-cup coffee from a bean-to-cup machine," he stated.

Mandella added that apps on customers' smartphones are becoming the next micromarket "kiosk." "The cost for micromarket operators goes down substantially," he noted. "Small markets are trending, for 75 to 125 people, with a 3-ft. snack rack and a cooler; patrons pay with their phones." He observed that contemporary customers regard a micromarket as more of an amenity than they do a vending machine

Michael Johnson of Yoke Payments also encouraged operators to consider opening micromarkets that use a smartphone app for the self-checkout function, adding that it requires significantly less upfront cost than the standard kiosk. "Make it your lead offering, as long as it's in a 'closed' environment," he recommended. "This brings your costs down and allows you to approach locations with 50 to 500 people; and you'll see 50% to 200% more revenue when you switch from a vending machine to a micromarket. The phone app lets anyone walk up and use the tools on their phone to add products to their 'cart' and then pay - and it integrates with the system you're already using. It removes a ton of friction to make it easier for you to adopt micromarkets, and to run them in your day-to- day operations."

He added that Yoke uses an Apple iPad for its standard kiosk; this keeps costs low and makes the process simple and affordable when providing markets to any location. And, he concluded, Yoke is working to make its micromarket app more accessible for blind entrepreneurs.

365 Retail mobile product manager Mallory Wonoski informed participants that the micromarket manufacturer is working to make its mobile app accessible for visually impaired entrepreneurs. Additionally, 365 Retail Markets is readying the launch of a "PicoMarket" lock to control access to coolers. The technology offers the opportunity to expand service to semi-public areas, and to offer extended hours of operation. The system allows machines to be unlocked by a swipe, insert, tap or mobile app. Once the customer removes the product and scans the product, the cooler locks quickly; the technology is fully compatible with cooler locks. PicoMarket connects to cellular, Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks and accepts global market accounts as well as credit cards and near-field communication contactless cards.

With mounting consumer pressure and media scrutiny closing in on single-use plastic containers, and laws being enacted to ban them, PepsiCo's national account sales managers Scott Stella and Daniel Stanley encourage operators to consider deploying the beverage giant's "hydration platform," designed to change the way people drink water with sustainability in mind. It's made up of three components: a dispenser, a companion user-friendly smartphone app and a personalized QR code sticker for reusable bottles that allows the consumer to be recognized by the dispenser. It delivers still and sparkling water in six flavors infused with essence of fruit, with no calories. Users control the temperature, flavor intensity and carbonation level. PepsiCo will be adding vitamin and energy water selections; they're expected to be released in March.

The next scheduled BLAST is set for April 14-17, 2020, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago, IL.