Late-night conference calls were the norm for Andy Lin when he was an engineer in California for a global semiconductor company. The time difference with clients in Taiwan, where the firm is headquartered, meant he'd often find himself feeling famished after most diners closed. One night he finished work at around 3 a.m. and decided to see if there were any vending machines that sold what he was craving -- satiating soup and noodles. Instead, he discovered on YouTube that there were vending machines serving hot bowls of udon (wheat noodles) in Japan 30 to 40 years ago. "I did some further research and found it was still popular because it's a (retro) machine that's still working and everyone wanted to try it," he says.
Silicon Valley has become obsessed with "disrupting" food. Alarming headlines grab the public's attention -- stories about meat grown in labs, flavorless "Soylent" meal replacements and "chickenless eggs." The tech industry is "disrupting" food by replacing the real with the fake. But other parts of the industry are doing the opposite: replacing the fake with the real. The newest Silicon Valley food revolution isn't about bio-engineering strange new food replacements, but using algorithms and artificial intelligence (A.I.) to transform how real food is marketed and distributed.
Thomas Murn nearly went bust in 1991, his first year in the vending machine business, when he had to move his Pepsi machines from the lobby to the laundry room of a New York City housing complex. Since then, Murn, now 51, has expanded beyond sodas and snacks into hard goods like umbrellas and phone chargers. He's also opened dozens of self-serve employee cafés and micro-markets at companies like Citibank and J.P. Morgan. In 2012, he was nearly wiped out a second time, when Super Storm Sandy flooded his cafés and equipment and decimated sales. But he rebuilt, and his company, The Answer Group, logged revenue of $40 million in 2016.
On-the-go eaters in South Florida seeking restaurant-quality food can now discover high-end eats in the oddest of places: fancy vending machines. Restaurants, food halls, hotels, hospitals and shopping malls now tantalize customers with touchscreen machines vending $30 grass-fed ribeyes and food made and shipped directly from local restaurants. The owner of health-food eatery Icebox Café in Hallandale Beach says vending machines don't replace restaurants, but in the age of hospitality worker shortages, they do replace wait staff. "[Restaurants] are suffering from labor issues, so this is a way to solve that dilemma," Siegmann says. "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, get it branded and install it, and if doesn't work, just unplug it and put it somewhere else."
Stockwell AI entered the world with a bang but it is leaving with a whimper. Founded in 2017 by ex-Googlers, the AI vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega first raised blood pressures -- people hated how it was referenced and poorly "disrupted" mom-and-pop shops in one fell swoop -- and then raised a lot of money. But ultimately, it was no match for COVID-19 and the hit it has had on how we live. TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Stockwell will be shutting down, after it was unable to find a viable business for its in-building app-controlled "smart" vending machines stocked with convenience store items. "Regretfully, the current landscape has created a situation in which we can no longer continue our operations and will be winding down the company on July 1st," co-founder and CEO Paul McDonald wrote in an email to TechCrunch.