A Simple Snack Solution
February 10, 2013
FEC Vending Machine Trends
As more and more bowling centers increase their snack bar offerings or convert snack bars into full restaurants, managers and owners are keeping it basic when it comes to vending machines.
There was a time when bowling centers featured a wide variety of vending machines, including food and drinks and even bowling supplies ranging from chalk to socks. But the cost of vending machines – the good ones sell for $2,000 to $4,000 – combined with lackluster sales have left bowling alleys with mostly basic vending machines for convenience.
“We basically have a soda machine and a candy machine,” said Mary Ann Ross, manager of King Pin Lanes in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. “It’s really all our customers want.”
King Pin, like most other bowling centers, will stock bowling supplies behind its main counter or in a separate bowling shop. The center sells plastic 20-ounce bottles of Pepsi for $2, and the machine also includes water for $1.75.
“We did a contract with Pepsi, who gave us rebates that just make sense,” said Ross, noting Pepsi supplied the vending machine and maintains it for the 40-lane center that has existed for about 25 years.
Steve DiDonato, owner of DiDonato Family Fun Center in Hammonton, N.J., features a Pepsi machine.
“We have 20-ounce bottles, and they must have 20 different flavors in there from Diet Pepsi to Powerade and water,” said DiDonato, noting the bottles sell for $2. “We chose Pepsi because at the time we wanted one with a glass front with an elevator, and Coke had a waiting period to get one. Plus, Pepsi gave us some nice prices on product. So the deal is we buy the product and they provide and maintain the machine. We stock it ourselves.”
Holly Crain, owner of Mouse Trap Lanes in Woodbine, N.J., keeps it very minimal when it comes to vending machines.
“We have two machines: Coke and Pepsi machines,” she said. “We buy the product from them, they deliver it and we stock them ourselves. I don’t even get involved with a chips and candy machine right now. If I have candy, it’s usually for a fundraiser, and I don’t make any money off of those, obviously.”
Crain said she doesn’t want too many vending machines because they can take away business from her restaurant.
“I am marketing myself as a pub now,” she said. “So we make meat-and-potatoes items such as meatloaf and turkey and burgers. So I want people to eat there as opposed to having a snack here and then eating somewhere else.”
Marge Stranberg, office manager for All Star Lanes in Milwaukee, Wis., said the center’s snack bar, which makes homemade pizza, is a major revenue generator for the lanes and vending machines could take away from that.
“That’s why we don’t even have a soda machine,” said Stranberg of the 24-lane facility that was built 34 years ago. “That way we can’t mistake anyone bringing in their own. We do not allow any bottles or cans of any type in the lanes. They have to buy it at the bar. We know they are buying it here.”
The biggest question many bowling center managers face is whether to buy their own machines or let vendors supply them, stock them and split the profits.
King Pin, for example, has its own machine that they stock themselves with 75-cent bags of chips and $1 candy.
“It just makes more sense and is more profitable for us to go to Sam’s Club and purchase the items and stock it ourselves,” Ross said. “We’ve had our own machine forever and decided to keep doing it. The former owners used to have a vendor come in and stock the machine, but it is just more reasonable to do it ourselves.”
DiDonato Family Fun Center purchased its own candy machine and stock candy, chips and other snacks. However, they purchase all the items for the machine from a distributor.
“We purchased the machine and maintain the machine, and we use a chips vendor like Herr’s and another company for candy because we did some price checking and found them to be very competitive. So when you think about the time running around to get the product and spending more than $3 a gallon for gas to go get it, it’s just better and more convenient to have them bring the products here.”
Dan Nicolus, manager for Anchor Lanes in Elkhart Lake, Wis., said his lanes also keep it minimal with a soda machine and a candy machine.
“We have a vending company that comes in and takes care of the candy machine,” Nicolus said. “We really never thought about stocking it ourselves because we have one company that does that as well as our games and our poker machines. So we have an all-in-one deal. If we call on a Friday with a broken machine, they are here an hour later. It’s very convenient and just makes sense for us.”
Aside from the main candy and soda machines, some other vending machines found at bowling centers include crane games, where people try to snag plush and candy, or novelty vending machines that dispense everything from plastic rings to novelty items.
“We actually have a company that does all of that for us,” Ross said. “They are all his machines and he stocks the machines and we get a percentage. They are small and they don’t hurt us having them in here, so it’s like found money for us. They are mostly for kids.”
King Pin used to work with a similar company to stock its crane game, where people can win stuffed animals. But they also decided to operate that themselves, too.
“We had them come in and it just didn’t seem to work through them financially; it wasn’t worth it for us,” Ross said. “So we decided to take that on ourselves. We used to have to buy toys from them and pay them and give them a portion of the money in the machine. Now, we just buy the plush ourselves and keep all of the money.”
All Star Lanes has their own candy and chips machine, which they purchased more than 20 years ago.
“We always owned it,” Stranberg said “We go to Sam’s Club to get everything because it’s much less expensive. We now sell chips for 95 cents and candy for $1 because we noticed on our last trip that prices went up. But when you think about how long ago we bought that machine and it still works great, we paid for it over and over and over.”
Sometimes, vending machines just don’t work out for some bowling centers.
DiDonato’s used to have a wide range of vending machines that included everything from candy cranes to supplies, but a recent remodel to convert the snack bar to a top-notch restaurant made them re-think their vending policies.
“It was more like addition by subtraction,” DiDonato said. “We wanted to utilize the square footage occupied by those machines for other things with our restaurant that we think are more profitable. Vending machines can make money if you have that additional square footage. But we just didn’t have it.”
DiDonato also said centers should be very wary of some machines.
“When you get away from candy, chips and soda, it gets complicated,” said DiDonato of his 26-lane, 26,000-square-foot center that originally opened in 1966 and was remodeled in 2012. “If you have sandwiches and different things like that, you have to worry about spoilage and waste and rotating items and refrigeration. It could be problematic.”
When it comes to picking vending machines, bowling center managers said to make sure they are getting a good deal, shop around and keep it simple.
“Usually soda machines and candy machines are no-brainers in a bowling center,” Ross said. “They just make sense because people can choose and pick what they want, get it right away and it doesn’t tie up the snack bar line. People nowadays want immediacy, and that’s what vending machines provide.”
DiDonato said convenience is the number one reason to have vending machines.
“Sometimes, younger kids – or anyone – just want to grab a soda real quick, whether they’re bowling or walking out the door and want one for the road,” he said. “They don’t want to have to wait in line at a counter to get a soda or a candy bar.”
That convenience is one reason why Crain, whose Mouse Trap Lanes feature 12 lanes, 10,000 square feet and was built in 1997, is considering purchasing a candy and chips machine.
“I have only been here for two years, but the former owner used to have vending machines with candy bars and crackers and chips, but she told me the reason she got rid of it was they didn’t sell fast enough and had to throw away product that went out of date. But I am thinking about putting one in as a convenience to see how it goes.” -