Vending machines for the new millenium

When I was a kid, summers meant trips to New York and Cape Cod. As we grew used to the incredibly long car rides, my sisters and I would develop traditions, milestones, road games, and other ways to make the time pass a little less excruciatingly slowly.

One of our regular stops was at the Maryland House, a rest stop on interstate 95, fairly close to the Delaware line. This was a good place to take a minute, grab some food, hit the bathrooms, restock on all the things we forgot, and generally stretch our legs. Best of all, it had a bank of beautiful, exotic vending machines. [AOL Small Business has a great gallery of quirky vending machines here.]

I remember staring at the wondrous goodies, trying to decide if I was going to spend my handful of change on a whoopie cushion, a smoking monkey, a key chain, a pair of magnetic dogs, or one of the dozens of other cool trinkets. I would weigh their relative benefits and deficits, until my parents made it clear that we absolutely had to leave, at which time I would employ the wisdom of Solomon to make my choice. For the next couple of hours, my parents could count on the little toy to keep me occupied in the back seat.

Over the past few years, vending machines have made a major comeback. I think I can trace the trend back to the 1993 furor over Japanese machines that sold used underwear, but I've been watching it slowly spread. Today, it is not only possible to buy a pair of Sailor Moon's unmentionables, but one can pick up fresh-cooked meals, art, and even iPods in vending machines. As customer service rapidly becomes a thing of the past, vending machines are offering a fun, playful way for consumers to get what they want with a minimum of fuss.

Automats: Once upon a time, anybody with a handful of nickels could walk into an automat and be guaranteed a hot, relatively fresh meal. After putting in their coins, customers would open doors on the vending machines to find bowls of lamb stew, plates of spaghetti, grilled cheese sandwiches, and dozens of other delights. Unfortunately, however, the combination of inflation and more upscale tastes dealt a death blow to automats. The most famous American automat chain, Horn and Hardart's, went out of business in the 1970's, and the last of the original automats closed its doors in 1991. In 2006, however, a pair of entrepreneurs opened the BAMN! automat in New York City. Offering comfort foods ranging from chicken strips to hamburgers to pizza, BAMN! is thriving. Perhaps the time is ripe for an automat renaissance?

eSpot: Following the success of Zoom Systems' eSpot vending machines, Macy's is adding the automated geek emporiums to 400 of its stores. The eSpots carry high-end consumer electronic items, like Canon digital cameras, Harman Kardon headphones, iPods, and other fun toys. They accept credit cards and, best of all, they have short lines, quick service, and don't dispense attitude along with the merchandise!

Art-o-mat: Since 1997, Art-o-mat has been refurbishing old cigarette vending machines, filling them with miniature pieces of art, and letting the rest take care of itself. There are currently 87 Art-o-mat machines in service across the country, and they are stocked with work from over 400 artists from around the world. While art may not seem as much a necessity as iPods, sandwiches, and panties, there's a lot to be said for bring artists and collectors together. Besides, as Pedro Carmichael said in Tune in Tomorrow, "Life's a [rain]storm, kid. And when it's raining [hard], the best umbrella is art!"

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He tried to make a ramen vending machine, but the noodles kept getting stuck.
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