The vending machines feeding US health-care workers can now dispense fresh food


  • Technology
  • Wednesday, 15 Apr 2020

Farmer’s Fridge has been on the front lines of the pandemic at nearly 100 hospitals along the mid-Atlantic corridor and the Midwest. At institutions like Lenox Hill and Mount Sinai in New York, Bayshore Medical Center in New Jersey, or Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, healthcare workers have access to restaurant-grade fare: smoked cheddar Cobb salads, pesto pasta bowls with chopped spinach and mozzarella pearls, chipotle turkey sandwiches. — Bloomberg

The biggest advantage of a vending machine has always been convenience. The vast majority of the four million that dot cafeterias and corridors across the US provide the shortest path possible to sugary – or salty – gratification.

Some companies in this US$26bil (RM112.81bil) industry had already begun to move beyond snacks and sodas before the coronavirus made "contactless” food delivery a buzzword. Chowbotics’s 24/7 fresh food robot, Sally, serves customisable grain bowls, salads, snacks, and breakfast bowls from a 3-foot-by-3-foot box in hospitals and schools around the country. Fresh Bowl’s kiosks dispense Greek salads and Taco Grain bowls in reusable glass jars from its kiosks in New York. Yo Kai Express had installed vending machines that serve ramen at the California Tesla Factory and at Netflix offices.

These machines are now finding themselves ideally positioned not just as convenient food sources but one with less face-to-face interaction, and customers are taking to them in (carefully spaced) droves.

Farmer’s Fridge has been on the front lines of the pandemic at nearly 100 hospitals along the mid-Atlantic corridor and the Midwest. At institutions like Lenox Hill and Mount Sinai in New York, Bayshore Medical Center in New Jersey, or Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, healthcare workers have access to restaurant-grade fare: smoked cheddar Cobb salads, pesto pasta bowls with chopped spinach and mozzarella pearls, chipotle turkey sandwiches. High-grade snacks like dark chocolate trail mix flecked with Maldon sea salt are also available. Prices range from US$3.50 (RM15.19) for the trail mix to US$9 (RM39) for the salads. (During the crisis, the company has cut its prices at machines by 25%.)

At the beginning of the year, the Chicago-based company had approximately 400 of its refrigerated machines in airports like Chicago’s O’Hare International, educational institutions like Rutgers University, and office buildings. (The Federal Reserve Bank of New York had one until February.) By mid-March though, nearly three-quarters of Farmer’s Fridge machines were taken out of service as offices and schools closed.

At the same time, the company was adding new ones in health-care facilities: It added 13 to field hospitals at the Javits Center in New York and McCormick Place in Chicago, places where food service options for staff were limited or nonexistent.

Because Farmer’s Fridge’s machines are sometimes replenished multiple times a day, using real-time remote monitoring of sales, the effects of the pandemic were apparent to company founder Luke Saunders before they were noticeable to most consumers. "Probably three or four weeks before we saw any impact to everyday life, sales at the airport were down 20%,” he says. "Usually, we're ramping up at this point in the year.”

Dining patterns have also changed. In health-care facilities, baskets and tickets – the overall size of any single order – are up about 14%, while off-hours transactions (typically from 6pm to 6am) are up as much as 300%. The dip in consumption that typically happened during weekends has disappeared as well.

Sales of such snack items as the dark chocolate trail mix, tortilla chips with guacamole and pico de gallo, and pineapple coconut chia pudding are holding level, while sales of "bowls”, which come in heatable jars filled with ingredients like falafel with turmeric couscous, have increased.

Chowbotics, which deploys its food-dispensing robots in 30 hospitals around the country, says that since to the coronavirus, grocery stores that have had to shut down their salad bars have expressed interest as well, as they look for a way to replace that service.

It’s not just captive audiences in medical facilities that are taking contactless comfort in vended treats. The Applestone Meat Co, based in Stone Ridge, New York, which specialises in whole-animal butchery of locally raised livestock, was on the cutting edge when it outfitted two locations with 24/7 vending machines, aiming mostly at convenience when it stocked pork chops instead of potato chips.

A little over a year ago, the company was selling roughly 3,000 pounds of meat a week from its machines. "I’d say we’re selling [6,000] or 7,000 pounds a week,” says company founder Joshua Applestone. "We’re basically doing our summer numbers now.”

Desserts are up, too. Sprinkles, the cupcake-centric chain of bakeshops known for its treat dispensing Cupcake ATMs, has seen sharp growth in the last few weeks. "Our open ATMs – in markets like Chicago, Dallas and Beverly Hills – have experienced significant growth,” says chief executive officer Dan Mesches. He estimates that the company is averaging more than a 50% gain in dollar sales and that some units are up as much as 70%.

The appeal of transactions with fewer points of human contact is likely to grow. "I’m assuming that this is going to go on for 12 to 24 months at this point,” says Saunders. "After the first few weeks of just firefighting and figuring out where the level ground was, we now are back into thinking: What does the world look like on the other side?”

For now, that vision includes moving beyond vending machines and offering home delivery, as well as maintaining the mini-fridges with free meals that the company has installed in hospital break rooms and bereavement centers – an important amenity for families because many hospital cafeterias have closed. Meanwhile, Nutricia North America, part of French multinational food-products corporation Groupe Danone SA has also sponsored 10,000 meals of company wares, which will be delivered, catering-style, to health-care workers. – Bloomberg

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