Fancy vending machines in South Florida dispense raw steaks, $30 champagne and cakes – Sun Sentinel

South Florida on-the-go eaters seeking quality cuisine can now discover high-end fare in the weirdest places: fancy vending machines.

Restaurants, food halls, hotels, hospitals and malls are now attracting customers with touchscreen vending machines selling $30 grass-fed ribeyes and prepared foods shipped directly from local restaurants. Here is a sample:

  • The Terrace Grill on the sixth floor of the trendy Dalmar Fort Lauderdale hotel houses a Moet & Chandon machine offering mini bottles of champagne for $30.
  • The Palm Beach Outlets’ Jarden Smart Market sells to-go salads, cold-pressed juices, and other restaurant-quality fare.
  • Customers can make 50 international licorice flavors and 45 types of hard pretzels from machines at the Delray Beach Market.
  • At the Carlo’s Bakery machine in the Sawgrass Mills mall, a video of TLC’s “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro implores customers to indulge in $7 slices of rainbow cake.

Call them modern vending machines, or maybe the next generation of vending machines. Robert Siegmann, owner of 12 fancy machines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, calls them surefire pandemic moneymakers.

The owner of the health food restaurant Icebox Café in Hallandale Beach says vending machines are not replacing restaurants, but in an age of hospitality worker shortages, they are replacing servers.

“[Restaurants] suffer from labor issues, so this is one way to solve that dilemma,” says Siegmann. “It’s a huge gamble right now to invest a million dollars in a full-service restaurant. Or you could spend $15,000 on a vending machine, have it branded and installed, and if that doesn’t work, unplug it and put it somewhere else.

The machines are also heavier and filled with gadgets that prevent customers from hugging and shaking the machines in frustration. Yes, food gets stuck, but “much less often” than the snack vending machines of yesteryear, Siegmann adds.

“We are now dealing with highly technical vending machines and with these advances come a number of glitches that need to be managed,” he says.

Yet that’s hardly stopping restaurants from crowding into the fancy vending arena. New York’s Brooklyn Dumpling Shop will bring dumpling vending machines to five locations between Miami and Orlando over the next year. The machines are contactless — customers order with smartphones — and the fresh ravioli sit behind tiny glass panes that look like mini microwaves. Flavors include Reuben, Lamb Gyro, and Bacon Pepper Cheeseburger.

In a press release touting franchise opportunities with a company called Fransmart, owner Dan Rowe said these vending machines “will be in every major market nationwide in no time.”

“The revival of the automaton concept is ingenious, especially to combat the current labor shortage problem that we are seeing across the country,” he says.

In the kitchen of Icebox Café, it takes 25 chefs, line cooks and production packers to restock Siegmann’s 12 Icebox vending machines with bowls of Moroccan chicken, chipotle turkey on fresh multigrains, bites of cake with cheese and tres leches cake. An 8-foot-tall orange touchscreen machine in Icebox’s dining room costs $6.50 to $9 per take-out item. It takes debit, credit, Apple Pay and Google Pay, but not cash.

Pastry chef Maggie Valliant bakes 60 cakes every morning in the Icebox kitchen. Forty of them wind up in front of Icebox machines parked in strategic locations with heavy foot traffic, including the lobby of the Alluvion Las Olas luxury residential tower, an Audi dealership in North Miami and the University of Miami. The rest is served to customers of the Icebox Café restaurant and its two stores at Miami International Airport.

“Every three days we have to restock the machines,” says Valliant, spreading buttercream on the red velvet cake. “People take pictures of machines all the time and that makes me happy, you know? They do this because of the quality of my food.

Siegmann launched Icebox Café’s fleet of vending machines a few months before COVID-19, then added more when its takeout meals sold “like gangbusters” amid pandemic shutdowns. Millennials and Generation Z are using them the most, and Siegmann is negotiating with college campuses, malls and hospitals to carry more of them.

“Consumers are more tech-savvy, demanding more food on the go and in their spare time,” he says. “If you install machines that pose less financial risk to businesses that don’t have to deal with food waste and labor costs, that’s a huge savings.”

Fancy dispenser boxes are also more sophisticated. Their artificial intelligence unearths the last-minute consumer data that restaurants covet: customer eating habits, age groups, top-selling dishes. Everything is accessible from a smartphone.

This is what seduced the chef of the Palm Beach, Thierry Beaud. Fearing the closures would kill business at his upscale raw bar PB Catch and French bistro Pistache, Beaud teamed up with fellow restaurateurs Hess Musallet (Field of Greens) and Dylan Lipton (Benny’s on the Beach) to create Garden Smart Market.

“We were worried about what the future held, so we invested in business models that were safer and less virus-carrying,” Beaud says of the turmoil on the vending side.

Their Jarden Smart Markets sell colorful salads layered in recyclable jars, as well as kombucha, cold brew coffee, and cold-pressed juices. The chefs prepare the salads at partner restaurants and send them to distributors in Palm Beach Outlets, Downtown West Palm Beach and Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue. Next, a Jarden will debut at Wellington Regional Hospital on October 29.

The machines are temperature-controlled and customers can scan ingredients before buying on a 27-inch touchscreen, adds Musallet. The chef says Jarden is inspired by Chicago-based Farmer’s Fridge, whose 400 vending machines in six states have sold 3.7 million meals.

“We bring our culinary experience and our knowledge of market needs,” says Musallet. Jarden machines may be set up in a luxurious environment, but their clientele consists of employees working in these fields, not wealthy individuals. “Places like universities and public schools don’t have easy access to healthy food. How many times have you walked into a hospital cafeteria and thought, “I can’t eat this”?

Beaud is trying to change the stigma of the old vending machines, the ones that dispensed potato chips and cookies loaded with preservatives.

“Selling was crap,” he says. “The automatons organized television dinners rich in sodium and starch. But young people are more open to things that involve cool technology and a digital experience.

At the Delray Beach Market, the fancy Licorice.com vending machine with 50 international flavors is treated like any other restaurant, says Bob Higginbotham, food hall food and beverage manager.

Market customers — their demographic is between 25 and 45 — are already lured in by too many options, primed by the dopamine hit of colorful boba teas, burgers and cakes in every direction. A red-and-black-striped licorice machine selling old-fashioned candy tubes wrapped in gifts for $15 isn’t just eye-catching, it’s Instagrammable, he says.

“The power of impulse buying in the marketplace is enormous, and the licorice machine stands out,” says Higginbotham. “It doesn’t generate as much revenue as the burger stand, but for us it’s a substantial revenue stream.”

Boca Raton’s Adam Struhl and his father, Warren, operate the licorice machine, which sells flavors from Finland, Australia and Holland. Frequent flyer Struhl, 30, has understood the powerful lure of convenience: He can’t count the “embarrassing” number of times he’s had to buy headphones from vending machines in airport terminals.

“Everyone has a history of licorice, or has family members who love it,” says Struhl, whose vending machine debuted in April. “Now more than ever, people want an experience, and when you tap the touchscreen, you can cycle through the flavors and read the story, chat with your friend about which one you’re going to get.”

In two weeks, Struhl will launch a second smart vending machine alongside, Pretzels.com, selling 45 varieties of hard-boiled pretzels ($12 a tube), with flavors ranging from strawberry margarita to bacon jam and bourbon. While sourcing licorice from international suppliers, Struhl’s team bakes the pretzels at a warehouse in Delray Beach.

Higginbotham is already a fan. “I’m usually not enthusiastic about hard pretzels,” he says. “But I have to tell you it was delicious.”

Dino S. Williams