Reprinted from The Spoon

When I say the words “vending machine,” what comes to mind?

It’s probably a cold, metal box with bags of chips and candy bars lined up in coils behind glass. That metal box is probably tucked away in some poorly lit corner or alcove, and it keeps spitting your perfectly good dollar bill back out at you.

Basically, nothing about that conjured experience screams “fresh,” “high-end,” or even “appealing.”

These established negative connotations could be a problem for the rising wave of high-end automated vending services that are serving up fresh food, sometimes with menus created by Michelin-star chefs.

It’s a topic that we touched on during my Future Fresh: Rethinking the Vending Machine panel today at the Smart Kitchen Summit. Megan Mokri, Co-Founder and CEO of Byte Technologies, Chloe Vichot, Co-Founder and COO of Fresh Bowl, talked with me about a range of topics impacting the unattended food vending services, including COVID-19, machine vandalism, and whether “vending machine” is a good term.

One problem is that managers of potential machine locations — think office parks or higher-end residential buildings — carry with them pre-conceived notions of what vending machines are (see above). Mokri said that there were some locations that wouldn’t even talk with Byte because of the baggage of the phrase”vending machine.” Vichot said that Fresh Bowl doesn’t use “vending machine” in the titles of sales emails or presentations because of how potential customers can react.

As we’ve covered extensively, vending machines today are basically small, automated restaurants that serve up everything from custom salads to spicey bowls of ramen to piping hot pizza. They are not just coils of empty-calorie snacks.

So should we ditch the term “vending machine?” It’s almost the inverse of the question I asked earlier this year about whether we should use the word “robot.” In that instance, I wondered if the term “robot” was setting expectations too high (people were expecting Rosie the robot) and perhaps we should use the term “machine” instead.

Vichot said that while she wasn’t opposed to the term vending machine, Fresh Bowl uses the term “kiosk.” But even that doesn’t seem to capture what today’s vending machines are capable of.

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s an important question to tackle now. Automated vending services are going to become a more popular vehicle for meal preparation because of their small footprint, lower cost (than a full buildout), contactless nature, and the ability to craft fresh food.

The technology is here, we just need a better name for it to help pave the way for its bright future.