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Vend Central Thrives On Supplying Diverse And Smaller Operations: Cash, Carry And More

Posted On: 12/30/2016

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TAGS: Amy Bartholomee, vending, Wayne Bartholomee,Vend Central, vending machine products, vending supply warehouse, Maryland Healthy Vending Act, mid-Atlantic vending supplies, confections, bulk vending, coin machine

BALTIMORE -- Amy and Wayne Bartholomee are keenly attuned to the product supply needs of smaller, independent vending operators. This awareness stems from their entry into the industry as operators of a single bulk vending machine, and then expanding into full-line service. Procuring their own products at a Baltimore-based cash-and-carry wholesale distribution center led the husband-and-wife team to establish Vend Central 20 years ago. The company is now the go-to supplier for a growing customer base of vending and OCS operators throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

These patrons come from Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia to shop for their products at Vend Central and to take advantage of the specialized service that the distributorship offers which big-box warehouse clubs cannot match. One of Vend Central's biggest selling points to operators with one or two routes is that it enables them to minimize their own warehousing requirements and inventory levels while purchasing products at a competitive price.

In 1984, Wayne ventured into vending with a gumball machine as a side job to his full-time position at Goddard Space Flight Center in the Baltimore area. Over the next 12 years, his bulk vending business grew into a full-line operation, and a full-time job, so he left Goddard to devote himself to it.

In 1996, with 100 machines on location, the Bartholomees hired an employee to run their vending route, and launched Vend Central. Their main competitor, East Side Vending, shut down three months later, which gave them a boost by quickly establishing a solid customer base, and expanding their product offerings as that clientele grew in numbers and in loyalty.

The Bartholomees opened their cash-and-carry operation in a 5,000-sq.ft. warehouse. "At first, we only sold what we vended in our own operation," Amy recalled. Before long, they sold their vending business to focus on the supply needs of their customers. They also moved into a 9,000-sq.ft. space as their volume and product catalogue expanded.

Amy Bartholomee, vending, Wayne Bartholomee,Vend Central
DYNAMIC DUO: Amy and Wayne Bartholomee opened Vend Central 20 years ago to supply their own vending business and serve other operators in the greater Baltimore area. Before long, they sold their operation to focus on the cash-and-carry business, which has grown steadily ever since by focusing on small independent operators with widely varying needs.

In 2009, Amy became owner of the company, establishing it as a minority-certified business in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware (a market Vend Central is open to serving, but it does not currently have any customers in the state). That same year, the Bartholomees moved the growing wholesale distributorship into a larger 28,000-sq.ft. facility. Last spring, they relocated into their current building, which is just down the block and about the same size, at 1615 Knecht Ave. in Baltimore.

"Smaller operators can get their product from us as they need it and not have to meet minimum-order requirements," Amy said. "It's less expensive, and saves time, compared with Sam's or Costco. And everything is stocked and organized with vending operators in mind. If they run out of a product, they can stop in and be out the door with it in minutes." She added that Vend Central makes it a policy to meet or beat any other vend product distributor's pricing.

In addition to its walk-in cash-and-carry store, Vend Central has two trucks on the road to make deliveries.

Most customers who shop in Vend Central's warehouse typically operate a single route and truck, have limited storage and drop in to stock up for the day's deliveries. But some operator customers have as many as five drivers who pick up their route order daily, relying on Vend Central as their warehouse.

Some operators phone in their orders ahead of time. Others simply walk up and down the warehouse aisles and load their shopping carts with what they need. All of the top-selling candy, snacks, pastries and beverages are within arm's reach; most are available in sleeves and by the case.

When the company moved into its new headquarters, it added 4,000 square feet of storage capacity by installing three-high racking. This makes it easy to broaden product offerings and inventory levels as necessary.

"When we started 20 years ago, a lot of suppliers wouldn't sell to us," Wayne recalled. "We had to pick up Tastykake at 3 a.m., but now they have a key to our warehouse and they drop the product off on Sunday night. We've earned the respect of our suppliers and really became partners with them over the years."

Vend Central's owners pride themselves on their ability and willingness to source requested items. "One bonus of being small is we can accommodate special orders and deliveries to help our customers experiment with new products," Amy said. "People are excited to know they can have a choice."

In addition to demanding a broader array of "healthy" vending products, a few Vend Central customers have begun operating micromarkets, which require different package sizes of existing items, as well as new ones, so Vend Central is making it a point to bridge the gap as needed.

In charge of customer service is Frank Novak, who always is ready to help patrons as they shop and to check out their orders. Novak had his own vending business for nearly two decades and was Vend Central's first customer, so he is a knowledgeable resource.

Novak packs standing weekly orders for many customers, so they can simply load them into their vehicles and eliminate time spent shopping. As an added convenience, cash-and-carry customers can also save a trip to the bank by paying with their collections; they just process the day's collection with Vend Central's coin counter.

With its move to its new facility last summer, Vend Central maintains four loading docks. This has streamlined operations by enabling the company to dedicate two docks to outgoing orders to customers and two to incoming deliveries from suppliers.

PepsiCo not only is one of Vend Central's biggest suppliers, but it also provides the company with branded beverage machines for its customers to deploy, with an agreement that they'll purchase product exclusively from the Baltimore-based distributor. Vend Central has about 200 Pepsi machines operated by its customers in the field.

As another added service for the operators, Vend Central can resell their used machines on consignment. "Frank can do minor repairs to get machines to work properly, and we always have customers in the market for them," Amy reported. "We move a decent number of machines. And if a customer owes us money, they can give us a machine and we keep what it sells for."

Amy said the steady growth of Vend Central's business has been driven by independent operators. As medium and large operations consolidate through mergers and acquisitions, the Bartholomees have seen an upswing in one- and two-route businesses that can serve clients too small to meet bigger operators' volume criteria.

On the flip side, Vend Central has lost some large customers to buyouts over the past year, so it is working aggressively to draw new ones and increase sales among existing ones.

Amy added that Vend Central has close ties with Betson Enterprises, which has an equipment distribution center in Baltimore and refers customers to her company for their product needs. Additionally, Vend Central's longstanding relationships with its operator clients and vend product brokers generate a steady stream of referrals.

Amy is also a familiar face in the local industry and plays an active role as a board member of the Maryland-DC Vending Association, a state council of the National Automatic Merchandising Association. She was honored by NAMA with an Advocacy Award, presented to her during its annual Fly-In industry government relations event on Capitol Hill in July. The awards recognize state leaders who have helped conduct successful campaigns in defense of fair play for the industry.

Members of the Maryland-DC Vending Association testified before the Maryland Legislature last spring in opposition to the Maryland Healthy Vending Act. That measure would have required that at least 75% of packaged food and beverage options sold in vending machines on state owned or managed grounds meet a "healthy" standard. A week later, the Senate Finance Committee voted to kill the measure and the sponsor of corresponding legislation in the House withdrew the bill prior to a committee vote.

"Doing our part to stay in front of legislators benefits the entire industry," Amy said. "It's important to us to be part of the bigger picture to support our customers and suppliers, beyond just focusing on running our company."

As new product categories enter the vending market, and new tools widen the variety of selections that an operator can offer, flexible and responsive product distribution becomes more critical to success. Vend Central appears to be well-positioned to benefit from the changes that result from today's increasingly diverse demands for single-serve items.

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