‘Changing’ the image of vending machines

Live lobsters from a vending machine? David Starr likes to point out this example – from China – of how vending machines have come a long way. Today’s vending machines are interactive, hip and cool, with technology that enables them to dispense a wide variety of products – without getting jammed. Starr, owner of Berkshire Natural, doesn’t offer shellfish from the 60 smart kiosks that he operates around the Boston area, but mango lassi, an Indian yogurt smoothie, and hummus dips are standards. Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene spoke with Starr about how he’s revamping the unhealthy snack image of vending machine, as well as their unreliability.

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“I admit that old-fashioned vending machines were my nemesis before I got into the business. What is worse than having your last dollar or quarter getting stuck in the machine? But the mechanical predecessors – archaic machines with gears, chains and wires – are now digitized, including a programmable refund when money is jammed. More importantly, while some customers just want Doritos, Pepsi or Kitkats, others want organic, gluten-free, or vegan snacks – and yes, now you can get that from a vending machine. I started Berkshire Natural when I went to the YMCA and wanted to purchase a healthy snack for my son and saw nothing but junk food. Snickers bars alone account for 1/3 of the product in 6 million or so vending machines in the U.S. But we have been traveling to food shows in search of healthy, fun snacks to put in our machines. I look at our vending machines as painting a canvas – the food has to look good and the packaging has to be appealing. There are 41 different ‘lanes’ in our refrigerated vending machines, which have energy efficient lighting, refrigeration, and triple-insulated glass fronts. I’m a former caterer and chef, so I’ve enjoyed curating a selection of delicious snacks, including dried mango, energy bars, black bean salad, and yogurt. Our machines are at health clubs, offices, schools, and other institutions, and the food is so unconventional that I’m told that people line up to get the snacks. This industry, which was once stuck in the stone ages, now offers touch screens, payment options, and automatic restocking. Wireless signals are sent to our computers to show which products are running low, so we know exactly when and where to send our drivers – there is no more guesswork or empty machines. In some of our machines, located at health clubs, we have protein powders, athletic tape, and nutritional supplements. But no lobsters yet.”

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