- Whole-animal butcher shop Applestone Meat Co. has new automated vending machines in Stone Ridge and Accord, New York, that feature 24/7 accessibility, allowing customers to purchase fresh-cut meat from the machines whenever convenient, according to The Shelby Report.
- The refrigerated machines have been retrofitted for meat vending and can hold individually packaged, fresh cuts of meat from lamb, pork and sausage. The machines also include frozen options and the selections change daily based on availability.
- The company is planning to expand across New York. The owners are planting at least seven machines in Hudson later this year, and they plan to place 10 machines in Scarsdale early next year and more in New York City later in 2019, Bloomberg reported.
The big question is whether discerning consumers be willing to buy meat from a vending machine, a channel more commonly known for products like chips and candy. Applestone likely wouldn’t be planning expansions if the concept wasn’t already resonating with shoppers. Inc. reports that the vending machines now account for 70% of Applestone’s total sales, with 3,000 pounds of meat sold through the channel per week.
The ultimate goal of the machines and the main appeal to consumers is accessibility. "We’re not in the 1950s anymore, where everyone works 9 to 5 and eats at the same time every night," founder Joshua Applestone told Bloomberg. This expansion could be a success if more consumers are struggling to find time to shop for meats at regular hours.
The company decided to use vending machines as a way to deal with high customer demand for meat with limited staffing and time frames. The current machines carry 150 items each, but the company is developing new ones to hold 1,000 items per machine.
As vending machines become more sophisticated – like Applestone’s refrigeration system, for example – and as automation technology continues to evolve, more food distributors are turning to vending machines to sell everything from pizza to fresh sandwiches. For this reason, the global vending machine market is expected to reach $5.4 billion by 2023, growing at a rate of 15.8% annually.
Most vending machines offer ready-to-eat, heat and cook options, including a fresh-food vending machine being piloted by Ahold Delhaize, which showcases the convenience these machines offer. Others offer healthier, to-go options like Farmer's Fridge, which just received $30 million in venture funding. But grabbing a raw steak from a machine doesn’t solve that same puzzle.
Raw meat distribution is trickier than microwavable burritos because of safety concerns. Consumers haven’t yet fully embraced the idea of buying meat online. Just one in 10 Americans buy fresh produce, meat, poultry and fish through e-commerce, according to market research company Mintel. Vending machines may be likely to cause that same reluctance for many, if not most, customers.
As Applestone continues to grow – with an audacious goal of having a raw meat vending machine in every major U.S. city – the company is wise to provide educational materials that addresses consumer concerns. That includes messaging about its reliable refrigeration system and restock efforts, which happens several times a day.
Applestone’s vending machines will, at the very least, continue to get business from curious consumers. If their experiences are satisfying – for quality, convenience and price – there is no reason for those consumers not to return, especially as they continue to seek new ways to get their food. But will fresh-meat vending machines ever threaten traditional grocery stores? That depends on how ubiquitous they become, but with household penetration of meat at 98%, there is currently enough demand to go around.