Last month, an upscale marketplace in San Francisco announced that it had begun selling baguettes in a vending machine, offering fresh and toasty bread at the push of a few buttons.
More recently, the nation’s first “pizza ATM” arrived at Xavier University, setting off a flurry of news coverage and social-media buzz.
Indeed, hot “artisan” pizza with multiple topping options can be bought from a vending machine — day or night — on the Cincinnati campus.
These days, in fact, myriad products — edible and otherwise — can be purchased from such machines, said Jeff Thibodeau, vice president of operations for Innovative Vending Solutions, an 8-year-old Dayton business specializing in unique automated retail machines, including ones activated by social media.
“It was slow at first,” Thibodeau acknowledged. “People were skeptical. People were so used to vending machines being snacks and sodas.”
But the rising popularity of online shopping and credit-card use, he said, have made Americans more comfortable with such commerce.
Machines stocked with the strangest of items — eggs, live lobster and neckties — had been a trend mainly in Asia and Europe, Thibodeau said.
“It’s finally making its way here and growing. I follow all the vending news, and every week it’s, ‘So-and-so so launches this with this crazy product in it.'”
Although it originated as a T-shirt vending company, Innovative Vending has begun providing items as unusual as hair extensions, flip-flops and condoms in machines for public purchase.
Although those items can’t all be found in a vending machines in central Ohio, Columbus-area residents can buy iPads, sunglasses and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream from machines.
Live bait becomes an option in both Guernsey and Hamilton counties. And, at the Dayton Visual Arts Center, Art-o-mat sells mini-pieces of art in a machine.
Back closer to home, Worthington Libraries in February placed a $31,000 machine that, with the swipe of a library card, yields books, DVDs and CDs at the Worthington Community Center.
The machine is the second of two purchased by the libraries during the past two years in hopes of engaging more area residents.
Food and beverage items sold in vending machines have widened in scope, with newer items ranging from dill pickles and protein shakes to fresh fruits and 5-hour Energy shots.
To combat a crowded bar during peak weekend-night hours, the Walrus last month installed a vending machine featuring canned beers ($2 to $6) — the restaurant’s alternative to adding another bar or scheduling more bartenders.
“It frees up our bartenders for someone looking for a craft cocktail or a draft beer,” said server Molly Doyle.
Although the machine proves convenient for patrons and helps managers control crowds — they simply need to ensure that an employee checks the identification of machine users — it also serves another purpose: “Let’s face it,” Doyle said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Some patrons buy a beer from the machine simply so they can post the transaction on Snap Chat.
Novelty, though, isn’t the idea behind the three Best Buy machines at John Glenn Columbus International Airport containing iPads, headphones, digital cameras and so on.
“They’re items that you’d need while traveling,” said David Saleme, who manages concessions at the airport. “You forgot your charger, or you want a new phone case or to take a GoPro (camera) on your trip, this is your last chance to buy one before you leave the terminal.”
Although headphones are a big seller, he has seen his share of high-ticket items purchased.
“People find comfort in brands they recognize,” said Saleme, referring to the Best Buy logo atop each machine as well as the Apple, Beats by Dre and Samsung products inside.
And people who are fond of one of Columbus’ most famous brands might be happy to know that Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream machines have, after a hiatus, returned to the airport.
“It’s really well-received,” Saleme said. “Our passengers love Jeni’s.”
Art in a machine? Really?
Long gone are the days of cigarettes as a vending-machine mainstay, but some of the receptacles that once dispensed smokes have been put to new use: peddling and promoting artwork.
About a decade ago, Clark Whittington of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, repurposed a cigarette machine into one offering black-and-white photographs.
He dubbed it an Art-o-Mat.
Today, more than 120 such retrofitted machines sprinkle the United States; Ohio has one, in the lobby of the Dayton Visual Arts Center.
The machines, however, hold much more than photographs, said Eva Buttacavoli, the center executive director. (In fact, photos are discouraged in favor of something handmade.)
“There are little weavings, clay sculptures, origami and jewelry,” she said. “There are paintings with little easels. The only limits are the artists’ ingenuity.”
Each item must meet weight and dimension standards: “Anything that can fit in a box the shape of a cigarette box or is a block the size of a cigarette box that has been painted,” Buttacavoli said.
Each miniature painting or other art item costs $5 ($2.50 goes to artist, $1.50 to Whittington and $1 to the arts center).
Artists represented in the Dayton machine hail from throughout the world, but three call the Dayton area home. Buttacavoli chooses the items to be stocked in the 20 slots (with each holding six designs of a particular artist).
The museum, with help from area donors, leased the machine in February, she said, figuring that the project would be an innovative way to connect the public with artists. The machine also helps introduce those less-versed in the arts to the museum, she said.
Since Valentine’s Day more than 600 pieces of art have been bought.
Tourists, Buttacavoli said, often stop in specifically to size up the machine. (Facebook pages are devoted to discovering and collecting the wares of various Art-o-Mats.)
“It’s something that is small and helps promote the artist,” Buttacavoli said. “It’s grass-roots.”