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Vended Food Continues To Open Doors

Posted On: 9/1/2012

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TAGS: vended food, vending, vending machine, micromarket, micro market, self-checkout vending, food vending, fresh food, food service, mobile catering, Tim Sanford, Vending Times editorial

The advent of micromarkets opens a new chapter in the continuing adventures of the vending industry in foodservice. At the least, this retailing innovation casts new light on some questions that have been raised about food vending since the dawn of full-line vending.

Those with long memories will recall that vending operators, presented with brand-new (and revolutionary) refrigerated machines -- and, for a while, heated ones, too -- confronted the need to procure fresh food to put in them.

In a few markets, mobile catering operators had set up central kitchens -- soon to become "sandwich houses" -- and were pleased to meet the new demand. Some mobile caterers went into food vending themselves. In other areas, some vendors were able to contract with different kinds of foodservice businesses with catering expertise. But in many areas, operators who wanted to vend fresh food had to construct their own central kitchens -- and those became known as "commissaries," a term originally applied to warehouses for nonperishable vending merchandise.

In most regions, one or two imaginative vendors recognized that controlling their own food production was not merely an accommodation to a new market demand, but an opportunity to stand out from the competition. They made their commissaries/kitchens into showplaces, and invited clients and prospects to visit them. They developed distinctive menus; they sampled aggressively; they sought favorable local publicity.

And a commissary created additional opportunities. It allowed the vendor to offer manual foodservice through "speedlines" or more elaborate cafeterias; it could support event catering and provide food for other retailers, as the mobile caterers' sandwich houses do. And these expansions also have served to widen the recognition of the vendor's food, to build a brand.

The majority of full-line operators who recognized food as a necessity for winning high-volume accounts found that it was, at best, marginally profitable. The principal reason was (and is) the high cost of "stales." A fresh-food vender must be stocked with sufficient variety to satisfy the last patron to approach it; and route drivers generally favored overstocking machines, rather than enduring complaints from people who missed out on the last chicken salad sandwich.

A good deal of the line-item sales analysis, forecasting and route order prepacking methodology that now is finding favor for more efficient ordering and menuing of prepackaged vendible products originated in food vending operations, and predates the now-prevalent UPC barcodes on vendible merchandise. Many vendors with commissaries barcoded their food labels which, among other things, enable them to scan the stales returned from each machine and use the information to refine the load plan for each location and adjust the menu.

We often have remarked that the vending industry played a leading role in making the microwave oven a standard small home appliance, thus creating several new categories of convenience foods. The vending industry spent a decade educating -- at its own expense -- American consumers in the use of microwave ovens, and in their unique practicality. This created demand for home models.

Prior to the 1970s, "frozen food" meant, generally, ingredients and TV dinners. Today's profusion of frozen single-serve foods owe much to the vending industry for their existence.

Regardless of all this innovation (and an impressive safety record), vended food gets little respect. This also is true of vended coffee, a subject dealt with by our publisher, Alicia B. Lavay, in this issue. In the early 1970s, one of the national operating companies experimented with combining mobile catering with vending in order to serve smaller sites and create a new outlet for its commissary-prepared fresh foods. One observation made at the time was that two identical wrapped sandwiches could be sent out, one on a catering truck and the other to a refrigerated vending machine, and the one on the truck would command a 15¢ premium (today, that would be more like 75¢). This prompted a good deal of discussion; as we recall it, the consensus was that the catering truck's patrons saw value in walking out into the parking-lot and chatting sociably with the driver.

A more recent suggestion, from an operator who does both vending and mobile catering, is that what people really value is the ability to read the ingredients list and, perhaps, to examine the product from all sides. He pointed out that this ability is also conferred on patrons by the new micromarkets (see our lead story by Emily J. Jed).

The micromarket is another tool that can solidify the vendor's role in foodservice. Like a manual speedline or cafeteria, it is a popular amenity that can help operators get the locations they want; but, like those manual foodservice options, it is not suitable for every location. However, an operation that establishes a reputation for excellent food through micromarkets and manual services will find ready acceptance of its vended food, too.