As the push for offering more healthful options in onsite foodservice operations continues to exert its influence, a similar dynamic is working in what is an important if sometimes overlooked corner of the industry: vending.
“Employers want to see more healthy offerings,” says Jonathan Peters, executive vice president of refreshment services for Aramark. “It is very important to them that their employees have access to these kinds of products.”
Peters works only with B&I clients but his words are applicable to other segments as well.
This doesn't mean that the old standbys — the sodas, chips, cookies and candies that have been the core of vending operations for decades — don't sell. But they are being joined by a growing array of products with healthful profiles that have developed their own growing customer bases.
At Microsoft Corp.'s headquarters campus in Redmond, WA, for instance, an experimental new vending concept called 2bU has boosted revenues by 17 percent at the location where it was installed (next to an existing machine with more traditional mix of choices).
It vends an array of organic, sustainable and local products that complement the healthy mix in Microsoft's existing Eat Well branded healthy vending program. The pilot rolled out in April with a custom machine designed to evoke local, organic type products.
“People were coming from nearby buildings specifically to buy from that machine,” says Mark Freeman, senior manager of services. “The jump in sales also was a bit of a surprise in that the building where it's located is filled with software developers who are known more for their fondness for pizza.”
“The whole engagement is different for the customer compared with traditional units,” says Tod Nissle, regional vice president for national accounts with Compass Group, which manages dining at Microsoft.
Most of the 400 other vending machines on the Microsoft campus offer a mix of traditional products and the company's Eat Well healthy products. In all, 25-30 percent of the vending offerings are healthier items, says Freeman.
Aramark's Just4You healthy vending program kicked off in 2005 and emphasizes reduced-fat and reduced-calorie offerings such as baked chips, low-fat pretzels and sugar-free beverages like plain and fortified water. Also notable has been a recent gradual decrease in the serving sizes of individual products favored by consumers, says Peters. “For a while there, package sizes were increasing because that's what consumers wanted, but now we seem to be coming back the other way.”
Two particular initiatives currently being rolled out by Aramark are point-of-use filtered water dispensers and machines designed to vend fresh fruit. The water dispensers have been deployed to address a slackening in bottled water sales attributed to growing consumer concerns over the environmental impact of disposable plastic bottles, says Peters.
At Natividad Medical Center in Monterey, CA, a fresh food vending program that offers fresh fruit, sandwiches, salads, yogurt and cottage cheese has been a “huge hit,” says Foodservice Director Cori Thomas. The selections are popular with overnight staff, as well as during the day.
“We put it on the second floor so that it's convenient for the doctors and staff to get to,” Thomas says (by contrast, the lone candy machine is sited in an out-of-the-way location).
The healthy vending trend has been boosted by NAMA (National Automatic Merchandisers Association), which rolled out an initiative called Fit Pick four years ago. Fit Pick certifies specific products using two standards, one looser and one stricter for environments like schools and healthcare venues.
Organizations operating vending machines can then use specific stickers available from NAMA to designate these products as healthier. Currently, some 400 products have Fit Pick designation, and these can be seen at www.fitpick.org, where organizations can also purchase the stickers and other merchandising materials, as well as learn more about the program and receive informational materials, such as a 120-page manual on integrating healthier products into a vending program.
“Sometimes, people don't know how to start a healthy vending program, so NAMA has come up with this initiative to help them out,” says Communications Director Jackie Clarke. Currently, some 3,000 organizations are using Fit Pick.