Vending machines are typically seen as antithetical to good health, with the industry criticized for contributing to childhood obesity and targeted by new rules requiring calorie disclosure.
But don't tell that to William H. Carpenter Jr., president of Annapolis-based Vend Natural, a vending company that specializes in healthful snacks. Instead of soda, cookies and other types of junk food, customers can buy pineapple chunks, baby carrots, multigrain power bars or relatively low-fat pita chips from Vend Natural's vending machines.
The company, with dual headquarters in Annapolis and Ventura, Calif., has 450 snack machines at schools, hospitals and companies in 22 states and aims to provide more healthful snacking alternatives to busy consumers. It was founded three years ago by Gil Sanchez, the chief executive. Carpenter and his partners got involved a year ago as a Vend Natural distributor in the Mid-Atlantic region. Earlier this year, they bought 75 percent of Vend Natural, merging the distributorship and the company.
In Maryland, consumers can find Vend Natural's machines at Anne Arundel Medical Center, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Severn School in Severna Park.
Carpenter, 59, first had a career in commercial real estate. The former top executive at Baltimore-based outlet shopping operator Prime Retail, which has since been bought by Indianapolis-based Simon Property, previously worked at the Rouse Co. Carpenter says his transition to vending machines makes sense, because both business models depend on the right mix of products and prices.
Carpenter, who recently accepted the Entrepreneur of the Year award on behalf of Vend Natural from the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, spoke with The Baltimore Sun about the company's mission, the nation's efforts to get healthy and why vending machines are like shopping malls.
Question: Where could I find Vend Natural's machines?
Answer: We're in Oregon, California, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky and Massachusetts. We're in Colorado. We're basically scattered throughout the United States.
When you look at the map, you would think we would have more in the West Coast because [the company] started in the West Coast. But what you have is a big concentration when you start looking at the East Cost. We're in the [ U.S. Department of Agriculture], the federal court system, the Naval Academy.
There is a huge push throughout the country to provide a better alternative. We exist by traditional machines. Our goal as a company is to co-exist and give consumers the opportunity to have another choice.
Q: What can consumers find in your machines?
A: We'll run everything from Smartfood [popcorn] to sweet-potato chips to cheddar cheese, Late July Organic cookies, soy nuts. Most of our products are all-organic.
We probably have 150 different products, with new products coming on all the time. … We're constantly looking at brands to bring unique products that meet the highest [nutritional] levels, particularly at the schools.
As we move into a location and as we understand the consumers' palate, so to speak, we'll modify to meet the specific needs within the facility.
Our "planogram" is different from one area to another because of the buying aspects of the consumers. We'll modify a planogram much like a shopping center. As you understand the buying habits of consumers, their likes and dislikes, you'll [adapt] to their behavior.
Q: What's a planogram?
A: We'll develop a [plan] based on a long history of what we believe will be the items that are appropriate and within guidelines in different parts of the country. We'll plan that machine based on those particular customer needs.
Q: How much do snacks cost in your machines?
A: Our prices in our machines run from 75 cents to $2.
Organic cheese, or those kinds of things, cost a little more, but it's not overly expensive. We try to price our machines where there's a good pricing structure to meet not only everyone's taste but also their wallets.
Q: With nationwide efforts against childhood obesity and the desire to develop better eating habits among Americans, are those trends helping your business?
A: The obesity issue has been going on for some time. There was such pressure, particularly when the Obama administration came in, and [after] Mrs. Obama's [healthful eating] initiative, to really go after childhood obesity.
We know that statistics show 100 million Americans eat out of a vending machine every day. One hundred million Americans. Think about that.
I like Diet Coke and I like our white tea. From my standpoint, I like having an alternative. That's where you have to find balance.
So at our company, we like to change eating habits one machine at a time. When you think about it, it's not outrageous. When you have one-third of the population eating out of a vending machine, we may be able to help somebody.
Q: What kind of attention do you pay to nutritional standards for your snacks?
A: That's the cornerstone of the business. … We look at the fat, the potassium, the sugar, the total carbs, the protein, the sodium.
There are many schools and universities that are developing their own requirements. In terms of nutritional value, we try to stay ahead of that. It is a moving target.
Q: A new law requires vending machine operators with more than 20 machines and food establishments with more than 20 locations to list calorie information for each food item. What impact will that have on Vend Natural?
A: We know that this is coming. Being a relatively young company, we're nimble.
We've been looking at this over the past six to eight months. We'll start rolling out machines [where] you'll be able to see all the nutrition information. It's coming, so we've been proactive about it.
Q: How does the business work?
A: We have Gil [Sanchez] on the West Coast. I'm on the East Coast, and our partners are here. On the West Coast, we have corporate-owned machines. In the East Coast, we have corporate-owned machines in Maryland, Washington, Northern Virginia.
In between, we do distributorships. We have distributors that want to offer [these machines], and they go through a process with us. We help with locations and help with all aspects of the business.
We try to find locations that make the most sense for the population because we want that to be successful, not only for us but … for the people that want to introduce healthy vending to their facility or school.
Q: How have sales been?
A: We're private. We don't make that available.
I could tell you … we're very pleased with the results.
We went from a distributorship to buying and merging the companies together, and that's how pleased we are with the business.
Q: Besides being president and chief operating officer at Prime Retail, you also worked for the Rouse Co. How does your retail experience help you in the vending machine business?
A: I look at the vending machine as nothing more than a shopping center. It may sound crazy, but think about it. … When you walk up to a vending machine, you want choices. When you go to the mall, you want choices.
I get you to my shopping center, which is my vending machine. I have to give you good choices. I want a good mix of choices, and what I have to do is give you some good prices. It's price and choice.