Prime Vending: In West Virginia, A Novice Operator Turns Biz-Op Lemons Into Lemonade

Posted On: 9/6/2016

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TAGS: Michele Sparks, healthy vending franchisor, healthy vending biz-op, vending business opportunity, West Virginia operator, Prime Vending, new ending machine operator, Jofemar, Teddy Sanchez

MARTINSBURG, WV -- Michele Sparks got off to a rocky start in the vending machine business when she signed on with a "healthy" vending franchisor, which she says promised her far more than it delivered. Deterred, but determined, she severed ties with the business-opportunity promoter and turned to established vending industry resources. Sparks is continuing to grow her enterprise, now operating 40 machines and counting.

The West Virginia operator said her initial investment three years ago left her with 16 machines, few locations for them and little support in critical areas like installation, merchandising and service: it was sink or swim. So she took matters into her own hands to salvage her investment and expand Martinsburg, WV-based Prime Vending in its home state, and into adjacent Virginia and Maryland.

Sparks had been in search of a business that would allow her the flexibility to remain heavily involved in her children's sports. Her daughter was training for the junior Olympics; during practices, the coaches and fellow parents lamented about the lack of better-for-you alternatives to soda, candy and chips in the vending machines. As a fitness buff and co-owner of a gym with her sister, she was attracted to the idea of "healthy" vending.

Her research led her to a healthy vending franchisor with a "turnkey" package that included refrigerated snack-and-drink vending machines made by Spain's Jofemar. The franchise program offered access to a wide range of natural and organic products. Also included in the deal was a list of "health-minded" locations in which to place machines.

Sparks said she flew to the company's U.S. headquarters in Florida for training in August 2011. Her first five machines were delivered in March 2012. In September, she bought an additional 11 venders. With little of the support she had been promised, it took Sparks six months to place all of the machines.

vending operatror, Michele Sparks, Jofemar vending machine
READY FOR THE ROAD: Michele Sparks and Nicole Hatch take break in Prime Vending's Nissan NV 2500 route truck equipped with proper product shelving.
"By February, I was pulling my hair out," she recalled. "I was ready to throw in the towel. The company wasn't what it said it would be in terms of support, information and promises. It wasn't even franchised yet. It's sad that people get into business with companies like that -- they set people up for failure. They crash and burn and then have to try to get rid of the machines, and the business."

Desperate for direction and advice, Sparks called Jofemar, the manufacturer of the machines, and explained to Jofemar director of operations Teddy Sanchez (who at the time was head of technical support) that she had bought the machines from a third party that had let her down. (Healthy vending franchise business models often use equipment made by a major machine manufacturer and inaccurately market them as "healthy vending machines." In franchise programs, machines are substantially marked up, compared to market prices paid by professional vending operators.)

"Teddy talked me off the ledge," she recalled. "It can be very overwhelming not knowing what's going on with your own business. Having a support system made a big difference."

She flew to Jofemar's U.S. headquarters in Miami for a day of training and returned home with a solid base of skills and a newfound confidence in repairing her machines, from changing capacitors to fixing cooling units.

Sanchez also provided her with a series of two-minute how-to videos for resolving specific equipment issues. He also helped connect her with the resources she needed to find the right locations and determine the best product mix and pricing strategy.

In the event she still encounters a problem she can't resolve, Sparks contacts Sanchez by FaceTime and he guides her through the process on the spot. "I save by not having to call an electrician or refrigeration guy," Sparks told VT. "Over the phone, I can point the camera to the machine and Teddy will say 'Pick that up and put that there.' It saves money and downtime. I've seen machines down for two weeks, waiting for repair people. I can usually fix my own machines within 24 hours, unless I have to order a part."

vending operatror, Michele Sparks, Jofemar vending machine
JOFEMAR STAR: Michele Sparks, who turned a bad biz-op deal into a realistic, longterm vending venture, has earned the respect of major machine manufacturer Jofemar. Here, the operator is helping out at the Jofemar booth during April's NAMA OneShow in Chicago; she's loading the Quencher beverage machine, adjacent to the Menu food unit, both in the Jofemar Vision series.

Jofemar has assembled a network of its operator customers on a private Facebook page, where it provides information and answers questions about the company's equipment, and vending in general, along with technical support.

"It creates a small-family environment to help everyone learn about not only Jofemar's machines, but the vending world, including products and sales," Sparks said. "We jump on and help each other with tips and tricks and Teddy jumps in, too. Franchise companies have burned many people. Jofemar and this forum restored my faith and saved my business."

When Sparks began her operation, she was aware of only one other vending company, in addition to PepsiCo, that served the schools her business targeted. Some prospective accounts told her they were not pleased with their current service, but they were locked into contracts.

For this reason, Sparks decided not to require her locations to enter contracts. She says that approach has not deterred her from securing solid relationships as the exclusive snack and beverage vending provider at most of the schools she serves. "My view is if they're not happy, I won't be happy. But that has never happened," she said. "I tell them they'll love me and they will never have to sit there and wait if the machine is down. We get a lot of referrals because we take care of our machines and customers. I run differently; I'm hands-on. I know the contacts at my schools and everyone in the cafeteria; the janitors are my BFFs."

School Approaches

The operator also takes her role in ensuring her products meet school-specific, local, state and federal nutritional guidelines very seriously. She works closely with the head of student nutrition at each site to review every product before it goes into a machine. "They know they can leave the machines on at all times because every product always meets nutritional standards," Sparks said. "Schools are now finding that if they're not meeting guidelines, it's a liability to them."

Sparks makes it a point to explain to prospects and clients the way the guaranteed-delivery sensors on her machines work and how they minimize the number of students coming into the office to report they didn't get their product and request refunds. Customers are drawn to the visual appeal and workings of Jofemar's conveyor belt delivery system, according to Sparks. Many schools opt to have machines emblazoned with their logos.

"The machines are not eyesores; they're actually beautiful. My machines even say 'thank you,' with a voice, when someone buys a product. It's the little things that make a difference," Sparks said. "My accounts basically don't have to think about my machines until I drop off the commission check. It's a win-win."

vending operatror, Michele Sparks, Jofemar vending machine
SNACKS AND DRINKS: Michele Sparks shows off Jofemar's 31.5"-wide Combo Plus, boasting a dual-temp cabin, waist-high ADA-complaint product bin and energy-saving LED lighting. The snack-beverage combo is popular on Prime Vending's route.
As an operator, Sparks said she prizes her ability to single-handedly service and repair her machines. She relies on their versatility and dependability. "I can customize them for a school or gym and easily swap out product, if it's not selling. The machine allows for that because it's so versatile," she said, "I can maximize capacity and accommodate products of all shapes and sizes by adjusting the trays."

Sparks founded her company as "Good For You Vending," and merchandised machines nearly exclusively with "hardcore healthy" snacks like apple slices and yogurt, among other perishable items. She found that while there is a consumer segment that seeks such a machine menu, perishability is an issue, and many consumers want a mix that includes more traditional snacks. Sparks's own philosophy as the owner of a fitness center is that any food, some in moderation, has its place in a healthy diet. So she changed her company name to Prime Vending to better reflect the happy medium she strives to strike. While she still generally leads in with a focus on a better-for-you mix when selling accounts, she emphasizes her ability to customize to the clients' wishes.

"Teachers' lounges want chocolate and soda," Sparks discovered. "So I revamped; it was a learning curve. I can vend what they need and want without pushing 'healthy.' If a teacher sticks a Post-It with a product request on the machine, I'll try it and keep it if it sells. For students, product predilections are ever-changing; a lot are great at first, and meet guidelines, but then some just sit. There's an art to striking the right balance."

Because nutritional guidelines for schools have changed, some of the major manufacturers have shrunk the size of their packages to meet the requirements with a smaller portion size of their traditional snacks. This has helped Prime Vending strike the right balance. "Meanwhile, many granola bars don't even meet the standards, so it's great to have smaller packages of some of their standard favorites because it provides more options," Sparks said.

Catering To The Customer

The Prime Vending owner grew up in a family restaurant business in which her parents treated their customers as friends and family, and Sparks says this philosophy is fundamental to how she runs her own business. She supports local businesses by purchasing their products, participates in community and school events, and volunteers her services.

"I know the principals and teachers. It makes it a different experience; they know who to talk to," Sparks said. "I try to stay involved and active in the schools and with the kid. We sponsor them if they want to play a sport and don't have the money. We always try to give back."

With 40 machines in the field and a steady stream of requests for its service, Prime Vending has its sights set on Maryland and Virginia. The company hired her first employee, Nicole Hatch, in 2014.

"She's my rock star. I took the time to show her how to do the things I learned to do on the machines, and she can now run the route without me," Sparks said. "She is as OCD as I am. Our machines are spotless and perfect. Our Nissan NV 2500 truck is organized beautifully with shelving and a place for everything. I think it's a girl thing."

By no means does that mean anyone should underestimate the six-foot-tall operator's capabilities on the road and at the machine; but she is amused at how often it happens.

"When I work on a machine, guys will sometimes walk by and say 'Oh, honey, are you OK? Do you need help?' They look at me like I'm broken down on the side of the road! I tell them, 'I'm OK. I got this. It's my machine. I'm the operator!'"

Jofemar has noticed Sparks' success. So the machine manufacturer asked her to join its team at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's recent OneShow in Chicago to provide her first-hand perspective, as an operator.

"People seemed to really appreciate having the insight directly from an operator and hear the little tricks I've learned," said Sparks. "I got so much information and learned so much from other people; it was a great event to feed off each other. It's night and day how I feel. I used to go to bed so upset. Now it's all about growing and what I'm going to do next."

SATISFIED JOFEMAR CUSTOMER: Michele Sparks, Prime Vending (Martinsburg, WV), joins Jofemar's José Iribarren (r.) and Antillean visitors Keila Floran (l.) and Armando Rodriguez, U.S. Caribbean Vending of Puerto Rico (San Juan), in the Jofemar exhibit at this year's NAMA OneShow in Chicago. Sparks "paid for her education" in vending when the business opportunity she bought into left her with no locations and no support, but excellent equipment from Jofemar. She turned to the manufacturer for assistance, which was promptly forthcoming, and she helped to staff Jofemar's OneShow booth to show her appreciation.

How To Keep Them Working

vending operatror, vending machine technical instruction, Jofemar vending machine, Teddy Sanchez
HANDS-ON: Jofemar's Teddy Sanchez conducts training sessions to teach operators how to keep their vending machines up and running 24/7.
As Jofemar's director of operations for the U.S. and Canada, Teddy Sanchez says he considers every operator's success his personal responsibility, and provides every resource to ensure they have the best training. "Operators like Michele Sparks can learn how to provide great service for their machines on their own, with confidence and pride," he says. So Jofemar has created a training program to empower novice operators to fly solo if necessary as they build their businesses. Here are five essential maintenance skills that Sparks has learned.

Refrigeration removal and diagnostics » The operator learns the fastest and safest way to remove a vending machine's refrigeration unit for troubleshooting and maintenance.

Power supply troubleshooting » Electrical issues are not uncommon on all equipment types. Electrical problems often originate at the location's outlet, but the operator first needs to troubleshoot the power supply to rule out machine error.

Payment systems troubleshooting and repair » From coins and banknotes, to card swipes and NFC, keeping payment systems working is the operator's No. 1 priority.

Glass removal » Every now and then a machine is vandalized, or an accident (manmade or natural) might inflict damage to it. Knowing how to replace the glass at a moment's notice can save down time and prevent unsafe conditions.

Custom tray configuration » Knowing how to properly modify tray configurations is essential to accommodating different and changing product packages that operators deal with on a daily basis. Knowing the best technique for extraction guarantees 10 vends for every 10 transactions. "That's the way Jofemar likes it," Sanchez says.