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, everything from rice to eggs is sold from automatic machines. Sometimes a machine dispenses cultural essentials, like baguettes in France or sausage in Germany. Other times, vending machines are created to meet a specific need, like the machines that distribute baby food or kosher meals in the U.S (Photo Credit: © flickr/Jack Tanner / flickr/ThommyBrowne).
So whatever 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 needs to be physically tackled before dispensing beer certainly 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 20th century responded to a new urban demand for a fast and cheap lunch, today vending machines are adapting to meet 21st-century needs. For example, as we become conscious of the childhood obesity epidemic, there is a push to make vending machines healthier in schools. Maybe then the vending machine that grows its own lettuce isn't such a wild concept, but rather an innovative step toward making fresh, local food more accessible. Vending machine technology is even developing to the point that we 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 important. The top vending machines, however, all have one thing in common: the product they dispense is alive.
- Michelle Kiefer, The Daily Meal