Packaging For Vending Machines

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A cluster of vending machines in Japan

Vending machines are about to undergo a revolution with new (healthy and fresh) hot and cold food offerings creating a completely new sales channel for food manufacturers. Consequently this development also requires a full rethinking of the packaging.

It’s general knowledge that the consumer is changing his meal times and the way and the where he eats. In most countries in Europe and in the USA it’s quite common to see people walking the street taking a breath of fresh air while eating a snack. Although these snacks often come from street vendors or small delicatessen, in time this attitude also will stimulate the growth in the use of vending machines.

The traditional taste-less institutional (school, hospital, office) vending machine with the well-known unhealthy snacks

The traditional tasteless institutional (school, hospital, office) vending machine with the well-known, always the same, unhealthy snacks

At this moment the vending machine has a negative image, as it only supplies (often old) dry snacks and (often not-drinkable) hot or cold drinks. But that will change as there are going on some interesting developments in vending machines around the world. It’s obvious for everyone that more sophistication in the food products supplied by vending machines will have a tremendous influence on packaging. Simply said, you can’t just put a packaged food product from the supermarket shelf in a vending machine (that’s what has been done giving the vending machine its bad image) and expect the consumer to enjoy it. It’s a bit more complicated to satisfy the consumer, particularly when you want to meet his requirement of healthy and fresh, hot or cold food snacks or mini-meals.

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The ‘futurologist’ Dr. Morgaine Gaye, speaking at the recently held Leatherhead Food Research’s Taste Trends Conference, gave a beautiful illustration: “In France, one baker tired of people knocking on his door in the early hours wanting fresh baguettes, came up with the idea of a par-baked baguette vending machine, which finishes them off once people has put money in the machine, after which a freshly baked baguette is dispensed”.

Baguette vending machine in Paris/France

Baguette vending machine in Paris/France

At this moment cruising the vending machines in the USA and most of Europe is a dull exercise. With relatively few exceptions you find only drinks, bags of chips, bars of chocolate and similar simple non-interesting items. When the consumer wants to go for some hot, healthy mini-meal, he can forget the vending machine, let alone when he wants a fresh salad.

In Japan, the World-Centre of Vending Machines. the roughly 5.5 million vending machines (one for each 23 citizens) are offering anything from the normal to the unique to the bizarre, including cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, ice cream, instant noodles, rice, disposable cameras, batteries, fresh flower bouquets, cooked food, umbrellas, magazines, and even clothing.
Whatever the variety in offerings, the majority of vending machines in Japan sell non-alcoholic beverages, mainly soft drinks, tea, juice, energy drinks and coffee. The latter, covering some 2 million vending machines, made the canned and ready-to-drink (RTD) varieties of coffee from a pioneer product in the market to its dominant contender.

Developed by UCC Ueshima Coffee Co., a coffee manufacturer based in Kobe, canned coffee first came available in 1969. UCC refined a technology to produce a coffee beverage that could be kept in a can for long periods of time without losing its flavour, and introduced the world’s first long-lasting canned coffee drink containing milk.

Vending machine cans of UCC Ueshima Coffee Co, Japan

Vending machine cans of UCC Ueshima Coffee Co, Japan

The invention of the hot/cold vending machine in 1973 by Pokka Corporation allowed canned coffee a convenient (and eventually ubiquitous) retail unit that could supply anybody a coffee drink in most places and situations, whether waiting for the train, walking home, or in the office or at school.

And although you can buy bananas, apples, and tomatoes from vending machines, along with instant noodles and rice, there are few machines offering a ready-to-eat lunch or mini-meal (hot or cold, fresh and healthy).
The reason, probably, is that, in contrast to Europe and the USA, in Japan people don’t walk the streets while eating. It’s just not done. The Japanese honour their food and that requires that you have to sit down for a moment to enjoy it fully.

So, that means, that with all its sophistication and high-tech in vending machines we don’t have to look to Japan for a development in vending machines for ready-to-eat, freshly-prepared meals and snacks.

A pizza out of a Pizzomatic vending machine baking and selling pizzas in Cologne/Germany - Photo: AFP

A pizza out of a Pizzomatic vending machine baking and selling pizzas in Cologne/Germany – Photo: AFP

In Australia, customers can buy French fries. In Germany and Italy, vending machines offer made-to-order pizza. Freshly-baked baguettes can be bought in machines in France. In Holland you see all types of vending machines with hot and cold, freshly prepared vegetables, meat and fish snacks. Interesting as they are, they are not of interest as far as packaging is concerned.

A Febo hot snack vending machine in Holland. In general a Febo cluster of vending machines has a (small) kitchen at the back, where employees fresly prepare the snacks and mini-meals, continuously refilling the open spaces in the vending machines.

A Febo hot snack vending machine in Holland. In general a Febo cluster of vending machines has a (small) kitchen at the back, where employees freshly prepare the traditional Dutch snacks and mini-meals, continuously refilling the open spaces in the vending machines.

And although Business Week claims that America has a long way to go, when it comes to catching up to the vending machine offerings of other countries, we go there, in particular to Chicago, to have a look at the latest development in vending machines for fresh salads, including its special packaging.

Farmer’s Fridge
Chicago start-up Farmer’s Fridge installed its first vending machine for fresh salads inside the Chicago Marriot O’Hare hotel and is now operating some 11 vending kiosks in central Chicago. I use here the word “kiosk” as the company states that “what consumers see is not a regular vending machine, but a kiosk of colourfully layered salads, stocked fresh daily”.

Farmer's Fridge vending kiosk at a food court in a shopping mall in Chicago/USA

Farmer’s Fridge vending kiosk at a food court in a shopping mall in Chicago/USA

The kiosk, as it’s claimed, is a work of art in its own right. That might be right for the American, but for the European it has the kitschy image of a fake antique replica.
Anyway it’s not what we are looking at as we are solely interested in the packaging used in this vending machine. But let’s start with the working of the machine and have a look at the product.

The machine has a touchscreen display, and the consumer can see all the salads neatly arranged in a row. All the salads come in reusable plastic jars. When the consumer has made his choice, a platform on rails moves up to the selected salad, the machine pushes it into the tray, and then it can be picked out at the bottom.

The consumer can see all the salads neatly arranged in a row. All the salads come in reusable plastic jars.

The consumer can see all the salads neatly arranged in a row. All the salads come in reusable plastic jars.

To keep the salads fresh and not getting soggy, Framer’s Fridge put all the potentially soggy toppings at the bottom of each jar in neat layers. On the top of each jar is a little plastic cup with the dressing.

Farmer's Fridge salad layers in a plastic jar

Farmer’s Fridge salad layers in a plastic jar

We have seen this same system of making layers when Sandridge Food Corp (see my article), launched a new line of products they called “Layered Selections”. The new line consists of freshly prepared entrees and side dishes with an inventive “new to market” layering concept that preserves the integrity of the individual ingredients.
The difference with Farmer’s Fridge is that Sandridge packages its line of Layered Selections in clear, stand-up pouches (see photo), while Farmer’s Fridge uses clear BPA- and Phthalate-free plastic jars.

Collection of the “Layered Selections” of Sandridge Food Corp., packaged in clear BPA-free stand-up pouches

Sandridge claims that the consumer just has to open the BPA-free stand-up pouch of “its unparalleled to any refrigerated prepared side and entree on the market today”, and pour the content into a bowl and stir. Once the products are mixed, the individual components come to life, producing a superior texture and a ‘just made’ taste and appearance.

In contrast Farmer’s Fridge claims that the consumer can enjoy the salad straight from the plastic jar. The salad in the clear plastic jars looks very inviting, whether they are convenient for the consumer to eat from it, is another matter.
As I hadn’t the pleasure to be able to test them, let me give a review from the website “Serious Eats”, which tested the jars (as well as the salads).
I quote: “While the jars are an easy way to transport your lunch, they’re also a pain in the ass. Farmer’s Fridge proudly suggests you eat the salad out of the jar, but mixing the salad is impossible, and you end up having to mow down a bunch of the greens before you get anywhere near the goodies at the bottom. Just dump it onto a plate”. End of quote.

Framer’s Fridge put all the potentially soggy toppings at the bottom of each jar in neat layers. On the top of each jar is a little plastic cup with the dressing.

Framer’s Fridge put all the potentially soggy toppings at the bottom of each jar in neat layers. On the top of each jar is a little plastic cup with the dressing.

However the problem is the vending machine doesn’t supply a plate. The offering includes utensils bagged in a biodegradable corn-based PLA packaging with 100% recycled paper napkins, but no plate or bowl.

Conclusion
The concept of the freshly prepared salad in a vending machine (or kiosk if you wish) is an important step forward in the development of this sales channel. However from a packaging point-of-view it falls short badly. The plastic jars have a nice inviting appearance, but are difficult to eat from. Furthermore the concept still remains in the cold section and isn’t suitable to offer any hot mini-meal.
I prefer a more consumer-friendly packaging for the vending machine, which can be used for cold as well as for hot dishes. Maybe even a mixed offering, something like a hot snack/mini-meal and some fresh salad.
In a next article I will come back to this item with some alternatives.

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