For ages, as a culture we’ve been cultivating elaborate dreamscapes of what the future might hold – visions of technology that could make life easier and impossibly convenient. The apex of that has always been the automat, which elevated the vending machine concept by offering a broader range of higher quality items than the average basic unit.
Of course, the next century as it exists today looks a whole lot different than anyone sixty years ago could have thought – but the vending machine is a vintage facet of technology that is once again coming to the forefront in new and interesting ways.
The pink metal ATM slot on Santa Monica Boulevard isn’t in service yet, but it will be. It’s attached to Sprinkles Cupcakes’ flagship storefront, and within the next couple weeks it will be capable of dispensing cupcakes to hungry customers twenty-four hours a day.
“I conceived the idea of an automatic cupcake machine after having late-night sugar cravings while pregnant with my second son,” says Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson via e-mail. “Even as Sprinkles’ founder, I couldn’t get my midnight cupcake fix; I thought, ‘there has to be a way’ and so the concept of 24-Hour Sprinkles was born.”
Sprinkles representative Nicole Schwartz explains that the 24-Hour Sprinkles automat will hold up to 600 cupcakes, restocked daily to ensure they’re fresh, along with various other accouterments, from t-shirts to boxes of cupcake mix to make at home. “In this hustle and bustle world, it’s all about convenience,” she explains. “We want to target anyone who has a sugar craving, whether it’s midnight and you need your sugar fix or 6am and you’re on your way to work but need a cupcake for a coworker’s birthday.” The automat will also dispense dog treats, a bonus since dogs aren’t allowed inside the store proper.
Sure, most cupcake cravings can wait until normal business hours, and by no means is Sprinkles going to use its cupcake automat to phase out normal customer service. But anyone who has ever been caught in too much of a rush to put up with lines (and, yes, anyone who’s ever stumbled out of the bar at last call with a craving) should understand exactly how great coin-operated immediate gratification can be – especially when it involves cupcakes.
A Healthy Compromise
On the other end of the vending machine spectrum is the controversy over traditional vending machines as purveyors of junk food. For years, machines in schools have stood at the center of heated debate. On the one hand they can be viewed as necessary installations, sources of revenue for schools and safety valves for students in need of glycemic pick-me-ups. On the other hand, critics point to vending machines as a major force behind the country’s childhood obesity problem – to the point where federal agencies are stepping into look at the nutritional value of products offered. Both sides of the debate make salient points – convenience and extra revenue are both advantageous, but health is paramount. If only there was a way to compromise.
Such a thought crossed the mind of Sean Kelly nine years ago. Moonlighting as a personal trainer while working toward a biomedical engineering degree at Columbia University, Kelly was struck by the lack of options available to even the wealthy patrons of New York’s Upper East Side sports clubs.
“I remember, at the end of a workout, being really frustrated that there was nothing healthy around the gym – there was nothing healthy at the gym, and all there was were white tablecloth restaurants and convenience stores with a bunch of junk food around,” Kelly recalls. “I remember seeing an attractive middle-aged woman in good shape, and she goes up and purchases a 20oz Coca-Cola out of the vending machine. That was the only food and beverage option at the four-story club – and we’re talking about a busy part of NYC, right? Suffice it to say a high traffic area of the United States. She got on the treadmill, started running, and put the Coke in the cup holder.
“So I was thinking: ‘here is this upper-income person who can afford to live on the Upper West Side and go to this gym and is relatively healthy – if she and I do not even have access to healthy foods, how can we expect the average person in the middle of the country to have access?’ And without access, I don’t care how much education you have. It’s impossible for you to be healthy. Just seeing that made me think: access is the issue. We need vending machines that improve health rather than hinder it.”
Today Kelly is “Founder and Chief Humanist” at h.u.m.a.n. Healthy Vending, one of several new healthy vending machine companies that have started popping up over the last couple of years. Companies like h.u.m.a.n., Fresh!, and 2BU offer the same installation and distribution services as traditional machines, but eschew the potato chip standards in favor of edamame, fruit bars, and organic tea.
Kelly notes that new vending machines focusing on healthful foods are catching on across the country – especially at middle and high schools, where parents and administration can appreciate a higher quality range of snacks and drinks. “There are still a lot of locations out there that don’t get it,” he notes, “but the general reception has been positive.”
Innovation in the Face of Stagnation
While the vending machine may not be an entirely new idea, the concept is evolving. As Kelly affirms, the nature of the business doesn’t always make that evolution easy.
“I think you’re dealing with a very stagnant industry, dominated by industry veterans who are used to doing things a certain way,” he explains. “Then they’re partners with all the junk food companies, they’re ordering from the same distributors, they know what people like and what products consumers will buy, and this health and nutrition movement is completely new to them – so I think they see it as competitive and a negative thing instead of embracing it as a positive thing.”
But like grass growing through the cracks of inertia, progressive minds are finding new ways every day to revamp the very concept of what a vending machine can be – and with traditional vending machines in decline, there’s no better time than now for a revolution. From uncomplicated cupcakes to healthier school and workplace options, the new frontiers that innovators are taking it to are already exciting. The future just might be a dream of instant convenience after all.