New vending machines cook hot dogs, count calories, detect stuck snacks

Saturday, October 18, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Gee-whiz vending machines may not be the first corporate perk companies think of, but a trade show offers proof that if your office machines just dispense chips and soda, it may be time for an upgrade.

The National Automatic Merchandising Association says 100 million Americans use a vending machine each day. The Chicago-based trade organization hosted an industry event in St. Louis this week, showing the latest advances in vending and coffee machines.

One used a robotic arm with vacuum capabilities to retrieve ice cream treats from a cold storage chest inside the machine.

Another grilled hot dogs inside the machine, warmed the bun and dispensed packets of ketchup and mustard -- resulting in surprisingly tasty hot dogs. One of the hot dog machines is already available to Red Sox fans at Fenway Park, said Andrew Shoaff with LHD Vending Systems, based in Alexandria, Va. Bratwurst, soy dogs and kosher hot dogs are among the varieties.

Other technologies on display, while not all new to the industry, were intended as solutions to the more common vending machine problems -- stuck treats or not enough pocket change. Kevin Caid of Bridgeton, Mo.-based Crane Vending Solutions said machines can now contain infrared sensors that detect whether a snack has been dispensed.

If stuck, the machines will try two more times to release the snack, and if that doesn't work, it then offers customers a chance to choose something else or a refund.

Another technology, Caid said, allows people to use bills larger than $1 to buy from the machines.

"You could put in a $20 and receive $5 bills back and change," he said.

Machines shown by Vendors Exchange International Inc. included an electronic display screen where customers can type in the number of the snacks they're considering and the back of the package is displayed to show nutritional information.

Do you want the Veggie Crisps with 160 calories and 8 grams of fat or the Reese's Snack Bar with 280 calories and 13 grams of fat?

Another technology shown by U-Select-It of Des Moines, Iowa, allows parents to go online, view what the vending machine at their children's school is stocked with, and decide which snacks and how many they'd like available to their children. Students use an ID card or a PIN number to identify who's at the machine and what they can purchase.

Businesses also offered dozens of workplace beverage options beyond the basic cup of coffee.

Mars Drinks showed its Flavia machine where single-serving packets can be selected to make drinks. While the machine brews single servings of coffee, it also offers choices like "well-being" teas or "indulgence" drinks, including Dove Hot Chocolate or Milky Way Swirl.

"This is an affordable perk," said Frank LaRusso of Mars Drinks North America. And he pitched it as having benefits for employers as well, with potential to keep workers in the office.

"It's the real drink they [employees] were leaving the workplace to get," he said.

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