Vending machine food: just a touch-screen away

SNACK PACK: New vending machines come with an iPhone-like touch screen.
SNACK PACK: New vending machines come with an iPhone-like touch screen. (Jahi Chikwendi/washington Post)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010

The National Automated Merchandising Association is on Capitol Hill this snowy Wednesday morning, and they are lobbying about . . . what, exactly?

"We're obviously interested in food safety and nutrition," says Ned Monroe, NAMA'S senior vice president of government affairs. "But our biggest issue right now is jobs." This is because the National Automated Merchandising Association is the trade group for vending machines. And when unemployment gets high, Monroe says, "there are fewer workers available to buy snacks."

Snacks. The mini-foods that we graze on throughout the day, a nation of cows moving from one 100-calorie snack pack to another. One hundred million Americans use 7 million vending machines every day, according to NAMA, and always with a panicky sense of trepidation. Will the Baked Lay's bag fall this time? you wonder. And only a fool would mess with B5, which hasn't dispensed a Snickers in years. Why can't they put the cheese crackers on B5 instead? Nobody likes those.

The vending industry is a $30 billion-a-year industry, completely embedded in our daily lives. To make sure that legislators don't forget that, NAMA set up a Coffee and Vending Innovation Showcase in the Cannon House Office Building's grandiose Caucus Room. There, against a backdrop of Corinthian pilasters and elaborate molding, are rows of vending machines, all representing the very latest in snack technology.

"We started with a simple concept," says Frank Guzzone of Kraft Foods. "How can we bring vending machines to the forefront of the industry again?" Guzzone is standing proudly in front of the Diji-Touch, an interactive touch-screen machine with an interface modeled after the iPhone. Digital images of chips and candy float on a blue screen; tapping one causes the virtual junk food to enlarge and spin around, allowing the buyer to scope out the nutritional content of the Funyuns before purchasing them. "It has a little bit of fun," Guzzone says. "It's playful."

Over in the corner, a representative from Coca-Cola is pushing the Coca-Cola Interactive Video Vendor, which also contains touch-screen technology, plus friendly animation -- stroke the machine and a cascade of color streams from your fingers.

"We want to add another dimension to the consumer experience," Jeffrey Busch says, and you can't help but think that you were actually okay with your soda purchasing being a single-dimension activity. Never once have you thought, "Alas, this Fanta would taste better if there was an app for it."

The simple person-machine exchange of goods has been functioning fine for millennia, it turns out, since the very first vending machine was invented in 215 B.C. by the mathematician Hero of Alexandria, who came up with a coin-operated gadget to dispense holy water. The first vending machine hit the United States in the late 19th century; it sold Tutti-Frutti gum on New York mass transit.

In the Caucus Room, a line of Hill staffers queues up in front of the Diji-Touch and other machines. All of the snacks are free, bringing to life a major fantasy for inner children everywhere. No Congress members were spotted -- but perhaps they'd already placed orders with their aides?

Justin Tanner, who works for a Republican member of the House, flips open his suit jacket to reveal his inside pockets. They are stuffed with the vended version of a three-course meal. "Chips, chips, chicken salad and dessert," he says, showing off his wares like stolen watches.

Elsewhere in the room, a group of staffers stand with piles of high-fructose loot and discuss how the National Automatic Merchandising event stacks up to other events held in the Caucus Room.

"The Association of Truck Stop Operators' pie reception was up there," says congressional staffer Erin Ward.

There was a beer reception, someone remembers. And something involving Taco Bell.

"There was a grocers' reception," remembers Carla McNeill. "You got to leave with a bag of groceries."

Here, you may leave only with the candy or a cup of espresso, dispensed from one of the high-end coffee vending machines set up by the door.

"The beauty of this is it's syrup, not powder," the vendor says, showing off the hot chocolate option. See this bar code on the top? It communicates the precise temperature and amount of water needed to make the best drink. He says something about "inversion technology," which surely means something to the people of the vending machine. The cocoa itself is fair -- better than Swiss Miss, worse than Godiva, about what you'd expect to purchase for a 3 p.m. pick-me-up, along with a package of Zoo Animal Crackers or Honey Wheat Braided Twists made by Rold Gold.

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