For most of us, a vending machine is a quick and convenient dispenser of chips, candy, and soda, a welcome source of familiar packaged snacks or beverages in schools, offices, and waiting rooms. Think again! These days, vending machines worldwide are challenging our preconceived notions of what can or cannot be dispensed at the drop of a coin. In Japan, which has the highest number of vending machines per capita in the world, sells everything from rice to eggs out of automatic machines. In some places in the world, vending machines dispense cultural essentials, like baguettes in France or sausage in Germany. Other times, vending machines are created to fulfill a community’s need, like the machines that distribute baby food, frozen yogurt, or farm-fresh produce in the U.S. Today’s vending machines are even becoming tech-savvy with some leveraging touch-screen technology and Facebook to generate custom chocolate bars based on a customer’s interests.
So what ever happened to the straightforward offering of bagged chips and coke? According to The Wall Street Journal, strange vending concepts are developed because the vending machine as a cultural icon has faded in relevance, so selling out-there items like live bait and prescription drugs helps to boost revenue for the industry. That may be true, and a machine that allows you to interact with its products by buying or gifting them could be interpreted as a publicity stunt, but more often than not unusual vending machine items have to be understood from a cultural standpoint. A raw milk machine is scarcely considered odd in Europe, where attitudes about milk pasteurization are different from ours in the U.S. The live crab machines in China might be interpreted as animal cruelty to some, but then again, there have been vending machines selling live lobsters in Maine!
If one thing is for certain, it’s that vending machines will continue to evolve. Just as the automat in the first half of the twentieth century responded to a new urban demand for a fast and cheap lunch, today vending machines are adapting to meet twenty-first-century needs.
For example, as we become conscious of the childhood obesity epidemic, there is a push to stock vending machines with healthier food in schools. Maybe then the vending machine that grows its own lettuce or is frequently stocked with farm-fresh produce isn't such a wild concept, but rather an innovative step toward making healthy, local food more accessible. Vending machine technology is even developing to the point where people can order a hot meal at the push of a button. There's no telling what the future of vending machine fare will look like, but we wouldn't be surprised if today's popular snacks are soon considered to be old-fashioned.
To compile our rankings, we decided that while the most important feature of a vending machine was what’s actually dispensed, the method of delivery was also pretty crucial to earning a spot on this list. So read on to learn about the craziest vending machines in the world — so far. And who knows, maybe some of these will take off and we’ll all soon be getting our mashed potato fix from the nearest 7-Eleven, Slurpee-style.
Nikki Vargas is a special contributor to The Daily Meal. Follw Nikki on Twitter @pinthemapprojct
Burritos, Los Angeles
Nestled in a Mobil gas station in Los Angeles’ West Hollywood, the Burrito Box vending machine satisfies those Mexican food cravings by offering types of pre-prepared burritos. From chorizo sausage androasted potato, to uncured bacon, free-range chicken and shredded beef, Burrito Box has you covered. You can even add guacamole, sour cream, and tabasco sauce for an extra fee.
Frozen Yogurt, Washington D.C.
The latest craze in D.C.? A vending machine that dispenses fresh, frozen yogurt for $3. Created by D.C. based start-up Frobot the company aims to roll out 100 frozen yogurt vending machines by 2015. Unfortunately, the machines are not equipped to add toppings but Frobot is working on ways to enhance the vending machines with toppings and an option to swirl together flavors.