That was the response of 80% plus of those who took part in our vending survey at the Allergy and FreeFrom Show last weekend. But why? A vending machine is only a box. There is absolutely nothing instrinsically either healthy to unhealthy about it. But because, over the last 40 years, most vending machines have come to be owned by the makers of either fizzy drinks, crisps or chocolate bars, the boxes themselves have become synonymous with the unhealthy junk food that is now castigated by food regulators and banned from many public outlets.
But this does not need to be the case – or at least that was the message of the Being Healthy conference hosted by 24Vend, a vending consultancy run by Gillian White, herself a coeliac – and a fitness instructor!
How were we involved? Well, we were early converts to Gillian’s message as we saw vending machines not only as outlets for healthy foods but as immensely useful outlets for safe and tasty freefrom foods, so rarely on offer when, as a freefrom-er, you are out and about or ‘on the go’. Such keen converts are we, indeed, that one of the new categories for next year’s FreeFrom Food Awards will be FreeFrom ‘foods to go’ and freefrom foods for vending machines.
We had also offered to run a survey at the Allergy Show and had put together a hamper to tempt visitors to fill in the survey – although we need not have bothered. At least 95% of the visitors we asked if they would like to fill in a survey positively grabbed it out of our hands, only too anxious to tell the vending industry that they rarely used their machines now because there was never anything in them that they could eat but that, if there were to offer some freefrom foods, they would be onto them like a shot!
So how does the vending industry view healthy eating? Well, the more far sighted among them see it as a get out of jail card. As the cost of treating obesity, and all the many health problems that stem from it, rockets, so regulations governing foods which are seen to contribute to it (all of those foods traditionally sold via vending machines) tighten and vending machines (seen as the cause rather than an innocent partner) are thrown out of schools, workplaces and other public spaces.
In fact, this is ridiculous. In our 24/7, grazing existence, vending machines are a perfect way to provide food to the on-the-go consumer – always open, always available. They just need to be filled with healthy, and ideally, freefrom food. And if they are, they can be very successful.
Proving the point was a presentation at the conference by Tracey Graham of Abercromby Vending. She and her brother (she a caterer, he a vending machine mechanic) started their business six years ago with capital resources of a mere £6,000 so they knew that they had to do something different if they were to break into the market. So they decided to go ‘fresh and healthy’. Initially it was a perception struggle but they persuaded their suppliers to go with them, to offer discounts and to really promote this revolutionary idea – and it paid off. Amazingly they have now won the contract to supply the whole of the Glasgow NHS with healthy vending!
Taking the workplace perspective, training consultant Liz Morris of Working Families is also a vending machine enthusiast seeing them as an excellent way to combat ‘presenteeism’. This is the state in which you sit at your desk (and so are ‘present’, rather than ‘absent’) but are simply not focusing and therefore being very unproductive. Although some presenteeism may be down to just wishing you were somewhere else, much can be laid at the gate of our Ultradian performance rhythm – the cyle in which we can perform well for 90 to 120 minutes but after that our performance falls off and we need around 20 minutes of R&R. Ideally we should stand up and move around to recoup our forces and get up to speed for the next 90 to 120 minute bout of maximum efficiency. Going off to a vending machine filled with healthy snacks would be a perfect way of both getting that R&R and refuelling during the Ultradian dip!
Schools are another area where vending machines have got themselves a really bad name – indeed, many schools have thrown them out altogether – although they do offer real benefits. They could, for example, significantly reduce lunchtime queuing, a real problem in large schools with only 45 minutes to get all the kids
through the dining process. Now that so many schools are focusing on good hydration as a route to better concentration, they could also provide an easy access to water. (Illustration courtesy of the School Drinks Company.) And, with the future in view, children who get used to using vending machines to access healthy snacks at school will be much more likely to continue to do so when they move on to the workplace.
However, although the potential is great, all speakers recognised that they had a lot ot work to do. Healthy vending will really only take off if there is a good supply chain, if the offer is interesting and varied (just three health snacks will not cut it), if it is really well supported in terms of price (a small premium for health is acceptable but only a small one and ‘offers’ are really helpful in gaining market share) and if it is imaginatively promoted and marketed – and that includes really attractive and appealing looking machines – not those dreary black things that are what we have come to expect a vending machine to look like. Plus app.s which allow you to calorie count your vending purchases, tie-ins with gym membership, special promotions or events or any other ‘service’ which engages the consumer with vendor.
The School Drinks Company website illustrates a number of approaches to promotion. Theirs are aimed specifically at schools so very much focused on performance but there are lots of ideas there for anyone wondering how to maximise their vending potential.
And let’s hope that we will be able to add our two penni’worth next year with some really exciting award-winning freefrom products to go in the machines! Indeed, It’s Only Natural, shortlisted twice in this year’s awards, is already on message with some wonderfully jolly vending machines that are going to be out there very soon selling their delicious Moshi Monsters and 1/5 fresh fruit lollies. We hope that many people will follow in their footsteps!
Meanwhile, if you want some inspiration, the AVA (Automatic Vending Association) got together with the University College Birmingham to create a brand new Culinary Product Development module for final year Culinary Arts Management Degree students – the judging for which followed the Being Healthy conference. The winners, I am delighted to say, were the Gail Pastry Company (seen below) with their gluten and wheat-free pastries filled with Chicken Jambalaya, BBQ Pulled Pork and Apple Sauce, Steak and Red Wine and Portobello Mushrooms!! My colleague Richard Erlich, chair of the Guild of Food Writers, who was one of the judges, was positively raving about how good they were!
For those who want to know more, the AVA has also produced a useful report on healthy vending which will be available on their site very shortly – at which point I will give you a link.
PS. For some other cool ideas on vending – how about raw milk?….. see this great blog on The Bovine, about raw milk vending machines in Poland.