Vending Machine Business Opportunities: Choose Your Adventure

vm5The first modern coin-operating vending machine was in England during the early 1880’s, it dispensed post cards. It’s safe to say the industry and variety of options since then has grown to some very impressive and, at times, ridiculous proportions. As needs, technology, and cultural tastes developed, one can trace noted contributions to the change, expansion, and improvement within the product and business itself. Nowadays it offers not only a great potential outfit for profit, either in ‘franchising’ of sorts or starting your own business, but also as an amazing new outlet to market new product/business ideas, especially in the food industry. Something we’ve seen utilized to much fame by the so-famous Sprinkles Cupcake Co with their innovation of the new Cupcake Vending Machines in select cities.

For the new Vending Machine Business-owner, as with any operation, there are quite a few steps to go through to finally reach that desired stage of successful start-up and management. We’ll be going through all of many of these opportunities in this e-book one point at a time. Starting off with the absolute first question that should always be asked once the idea of vending first comes up:

What kind of Vending Product/Style do I actually want to sell?

There are plenty of different categories that have popped up throughout the past century, many becoming classic staple machines seen everywhere while newly fangled specialty options pop up in various big cities. Taking into account all the slight deviations in producers, options to fill the machine with, demographics to cater to, etc, the possibilities can seem almost infinite. These can be wrangled into a few general, wide-reaching options for our beginning considerations, as such.

Soda/Cold Drink Machines

Easily the most common and well-known machines, except for maybe the snack style, and still the most rapidly evolving in dispensing product the most rapidly. We can find these in schools, offices, malls, train/bus stations, etc, most often peddling branded drinks (most soda vendors being owned by certain corporations to display their set products). Coming in designs for both cans and bottles, these have famously offered everything from soda products to flavored waters, juices, teas, even beer and other alcohol depending on the countries.

Two main styles have emerged for these, the design-covered, non-see-through stands usually designed to carry 8-10 different options being the most familiar and widespread to consumers in the U.S. These are clearly labeled, often with big buttons for easy selection.

vm8The “Glass Front” offers a second alternative here; with a see-through cover, products are either displayed in similar fashion to typical snack vending machines where we can see the rows behind, or fully lined up to display in front. However it’s particularly done, these usually offer a MUCH higher variety in product choices. Japan is rather well-known for their use of this display style, one can find these kinds of machines almost everywhere, filled with a bunch of ‘odd’ drink flavors or, for the adults, a full beer selection.

vm1Companies have started improving the selection technology for many of these machines in the past few years, kicking out the simple button-pushing designs to use up-to-date touch screens to display and select the products instead. In fact, many a movie theater has started stocking a special choose-your-own touch-screen soda fountains (it may not technically count as a vending machine as far as we’re defining it here, but it’s an intriguing example we find) that stocks not only dozens of different soda options within itself, the box being the size of a standard soda vending machine about, but also allowing one to make official mixes before dispensing.

Did you know there are also milk bottle-dispensing vending machines shaped to look like cows?

Snack Machines

The second most prolific vending option out there, snack machines can be found everywhere offering just about every kind of food product imaginable? In reality, most of the following ‘styles’ can really be considered part of the subset to the snack machine (at least certain styles of each can be), in both what foods they hold and how they deliver it. For despite the amazing range and versatility which these bring to the business, the style and build are almost always the exact same. A see-through pane encompassing almost the entire front of the machine, with similar dimensions (if not bigger) to the standard soda vending, with a very large selection of options displayed in rows, each of which is clearly stacked together in the classic large corkscrew that, when that option is chosen, rotates and pushes the desired product to drop into the trough-like waiting area.

With most of these housing very non-perishable items (except the random apple, how did that get in there?), such as chips, candy bars, granola/nuts, etc, these machines have become prolific for a reason. Not only do they often take advantage of our desire for ‘junk’ food on most occasions, but because of the items most often kept in stow one has little need to worry about frequent replacing and restocking. Thus the owner can set up a large number of these throughout the area and wait patiently as profit slowly rolls in a bit at a time from each.

If one wants to try out a new product in the market which is non-perishable, these machines fit as the perfect way to display them. The options are only limited by your own requirements and imagination. Whether the entire thing is filled with 1-2 individual products (great for advertising or getting brands in) or a huge variety, both styles have proven successful in one way or another.

Did you know in LA there’s one that deposits Caviar by the ounce (only $500!? Guess that mother-of-pearl spoon for $4 is a steal)?

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Candy Machines

vm9Sweets and candies have been offered in a lot of different machines, including the overall category of ‘snack machines’ discussed below, but one can generally consider these as the very old-fashioned single containers operated by a turn-key coin lock that rotates compartments filled with the corresponding machine’s candy of choice. These are the Gumball Machines, the glass boxes kept in the exits of supermarkets and malls filled with MnMs and those fruit-shaped Candied Runts. They’re often very low in cost compared to these other machines (both for owner and consumer), small in size, rather light (but with some weight to discourage shaking), and only ever take coins. These same designs are just as famous for holding novelty-filled capsules.

Coffee/Hot Drink Machines

A very profitable segment of the vending industry, at least when put in office spaces and big dorms(keep away from places really close to Starbucks), this often very large vending machines offer heated-to-order options poured directly in cup, in the form of Coffee, Hot Cocoa, Tea, and a deluge of rapidly growing drink selections. Instead of an array of buttons, most of the machine’s non-see-through face is used to display the full menu, while a single ice-machine-like drop compartment kept at hand level waits for the order to be placed. Once done, a paper cup is deposited by machine into position, soon followed by water which has been heated and mixed with instant coffee/cocoa (though some machines are starting to grind their own coffee beans nowadays), and even a selection of milk or cream if chosen.

Though the number of options to order are higher than ever, the basic style and designs of machines for owners to choose from are still severely limited compared to other products. They are certainly very popular and a sure-fire money maker if placed right (UK loves them for tea), but on the downside require the most maintenance of all vending options.

Did you know, producing in similar fashion but without the heated aspect, Japan even has a pour-to-order Draft Beer Vending Machine?

Cold Lunches/Food Machines

vm11Much like the classic snack machines, these often offer a variety options to choose one, the main difference being the reliance on a refrigeration element in the machine that keeps the items chilled. This is marketed much to be applied to fresh products like fruit, salads, and other health foods (discussed later), but more often than not is used for sandwiches, wraps, microwave packs and other quick-meals. Overall the appeal of something ‘fresh’ is seen as higher than the mass of junk food, but with a shorter life expectancy they need to be re-stocked more often, thus it’s ever more imperative that they sell at a particularly high rate to maintain a profit.

Many of these are set up similar to the classic see-through or display-based screen snack vending builds w/ rows and drop-down setup. We also see the use o a unique style based on a rotating turret column, which the customer can spin through and pay the machine to slide back the individual compartment doors holding each food.

Did you know there’s a machine in China that sells Live Crab?

Frozen Food Machines

vm12Always sought after in hot summer days, ice cream machines offer much in taking advantage of consumer’s temptation towards the ‘guilty pleasures’ that frozen dairy products tend to offer. Often designed similar to the refrigerated cold drop-down food machines, only to the much colder freezing point, the most basic styles come in the snack-vending configuration packed with the more hand-held frozen snacks (popsicles, bars, cream cones, choco tacos, etc). Though this writer also recalls the days of childhood when he would come across the large-boxed ‘Blue Bunny’ machines, with a see-through window one could watch a robotic arm move and pick up your desired box of chosen bar. They offered an attractive option to pique the interest of those passing by.

We don’t limit these to frozen desserts, since much like with cold food machines these temperatures have also been utilized to stock smaller frozen lunch options (burritos and breakfast sandwiches for example), which customers can buy and reheat in a nearby microwave. They’re often laid out in the same manner as the rotating stacked plastic slide-window models.

Of particular note, in talking about refrigerated machines, are those that utilize dual-temperature sides, allowing for a variety of simply COOLED items next to FROZEN, thus diversifying one’s options in a single machine and providing a large variety. Another benefit being that, with half or so items frozen, one had notably less items to worry about restocking and going ‘bad.’

Did you know there USED to be an ice cream machine in the US that served it SCOOPED with mix-ins, all chosen by touch-screen and creating a potential of 96 different combinations. A shame it died out.

Hot Food Machines

vm2These are less common with each one acting more as its own unique novelty. Unlike the Cold Lunches, which MAINLY offer variety, machines that serve hot-and-ready options usually have to specialize in single items (the exception being Japan where a few ‘hot menu’ machines with a few options exist). Including Hot Dog, Mashed Potatoes w/ Gravy, French Fries, Baguettes, and even a Pizza vending machine in Italy, each and every one of these machines usually need a specially designed system so as to warm and/or cook the product in the specifically required way.

Simpler models, like the Hot Bread vendors in Germany, base out of multiple compartments with uncomplicated warming devices a-la heat lamp-strategy to keep at an even temperature. These could easily be repurposed for multiple other products, even offering variety, though the appeal to consumers of food kept warm all day may not be palpable towards today’s standards. Thus the likelihood of them offering a fast and quality return-on-revenue is highly unlikely.

vm3But that’s as of this century, back in the day so-called “Automats,” diners or restaurants where the entire wall is filled with boxes of pre-made food (cold pies, hot burgers, etc) were readily available. Basically acting as miniature newspaper-box-style vendors between the kitchen and dining room, a few coins and twist of the handle gave one access to the lunch or dinner of their choice. A few of these still exist in Netherlands and likely other countries; a Modern-style one attempted its own revitalization back in 2009, but sadly success did not follow.

Health Food Machines

Usually sold separately with the ‘healthy food’ brand, each usually carrying a single specific product, these recent machines have come to hold everything from healthy drinks and waters (which also fit into the previous drink-machine category) to fresh fruit and vegetables. They can also be akin to typical snack vending boxes but filled with healthy nut, granola, and other snacks instead of the typical ‘junk food,’ the health trend in the vending industry offers new critical customer bases a safe and ‘natural’ option to purchase from a machine. Note heavily vm7that, as is expected, the fresh-produce based machines (usually filled with a single type of item, so best to keep small) need frequent changing out to maintain quality before ‘expiration.’

Japan, awesome Japan, hosts machines that only sells Bananas (by the bunch or single), and even one that does Lettuce which RE-GROWS in the machine.

Toys, Novelty, and Electronics

vm6Non-food vending machines offer a whole other world of options and possibilities to explore that are just as, if not even more so, diversified as the edible ones already seen. From the classic single-key-turn styles filled with bouncy balls and toy capsules, a-la gumball and simple candy vending styles, to the snack-machine sized brightly lit glass cabinets stuffed with the latest electronic gear. Whether it’s headphones, ipads, iphones, etc, these latter machines have popped up frequently of recent with their eye-catching modern design and notably higher-priced offerings. Any well-frequented place that’s ‘hi roller’ is likely to have at least ONE machine like this filled with some almost-ridiculous thing we would never have thought would come out of a vending machine ten years ago. In fact I believe I heard something about one that dropped Rolexes in Vegas…

Then again, this category also includes the bathroom wall-vending machines (you know, the ones filled with vertical stacks of ‘male/female health aids,’ glo-sticks and deodorant wrapped in a large flat aluminum box), recent rent-able DVD boxes a-la Netflix (often seen in supermarkets), atm and soda-machine style booths where one can download music on-the-go, and of course the traditional newspaper boxes on the street.

Though the final of these may be seeing the end of its days, avenues of business offer entrepreneurs young and old the possibility to dream any kind of product into a vending machine nowadays. With the right marketing, design, and placement, you can get just about any edible or non into a box today for simple, easy currency trading to the public. Whether the dreams are big or small, there are machines out there to fit the mold perfectly.

See Also:

10 Types of Vending Machines

The Different Types of Vending Machines

Types of Vending Machines

24 Vending Machines You Won’t Believe Exist

About Andrew

A graduate in Bachelors of the International Culinary School at the Art Institutes, Andrew Steifer has spent his days obsessing over everything food and drink. While working towards his Wine Certification, he started writing his own Food Truck Blog focused on reviewing all the mobile vendors of Minnesota. Being the first person to stubbornly pursue a blog like this for their newly budding street food scene, it's safe to say Andrew's love of food trucks is almost dangerous, at least to his wallet. He's been writing since 2013, drinking since 2010, and consuming every delicious morsel he can find every chance he gets.