Quick-Coin Snacks
Food and Beverage Vending at Zoos and Aquariums

When you’re at a zoo or aquarium and hunger hits, it’s not always convenient to find a nearby food kiosk or concession stand, and if all you want is a quick snack or a bottle of water, waiting on line for 20 minutes or more can be tiresome, especially with children in tow. That’s why many of these attractions rely on food and beverage vending machines to supplement their food choices.
The vending machines are popular with guests who want to grab something quickly or who are in parts of the attraction farther away from other food options. Plus, in the winter, many zoos and aquariums close down their on-site restaurants so the machines are the only way to get some snacks.
Andrew Stockel, concession merchandise coordinator for the Milwaukee County Zoo in Wisconsin, is in charge of approximately 55 soda and candy vending machines throughout the zoo grounds.
“People aren’t looking for the junk food snacks that they were when I was a child,” he said. “They want the healthier snacks, maybe Sun Chips or Goldfish or even healthier items than that.”
The zoo is 222 acres, and Stockel doesn’t want to disrupt its beauty by putting a big vending machine in plain sight, so most are built into the atmosphere, such as placed inside a little man-made hut or next to trees. This way, they are still adjacent to populated areas.
“Every time a button is pushed in a vending machine, there’s a record made so we can keep track of what’s popular and what we need to add,” Stockel said. “It seems like right now the purchase price in vending machines is as high as it’s ever been. People are willing to pay $2.50 for that bottle of water or soda and it wasn’t like that in the past.”
More than 226,000 guests made their way through Dickerson Park Zoo in 2012, with three-fourths of its guests coming from within a 100-mile radius of its Springfield, Mo., location, giving it a geographic reach into northwest Arkansas, northeast Oklahoma and southeast Kansas.
When one spots a vending machine on the zoo property, it offers more than just the logo of the products inside.
“We have several that are custom art fronts that we worked with our local Coca-Cola/Dr. Pepper distributor on and those feature animal scenes,” said Brandon Owens, assistant guest services supervisor for the Dickerson Park Zoo. “On four drink machines we have artwork from a couple of children’s art contests we hosted in conjunction with our Art Gone Wild! event several years ago.”
Overall, the zoo offers 10 vending machines in the park; four are grouped in one theme area (water, soda, two ice cream), and three more are grouped in another area (water, soda and ice cream). The remaining three are individual water/soda machines strategically positioned in high-traffic areas to provide guest convenience.
“We have moved machines around in the past to improve visibility and access and also to make it easier for our staff to maintain the inventory and service machines,” Owens said. “Dedicating machines to just vending bottled water works very well for us in the Midwest during the heat of the summer. Having that much product available helps with convenience for our guests and cuts down on the amount of time staff dedicates to servicing and refilling.”
The zoo has a revenue-share contract with a local vending company that places and services the three ice cream vending machines.
“The vending machines augment our traditional food/beverage operation from our café and a portable concession stand,” Owens said. “The machines provide access to cold drinks and ice cream in locations farther away from our café and during off-season periods when the café and concession stand have reduced operating hours or are closed.”
In 2013 the ice cream machine vendor is planning to change out two of the ice cream novelty machines to a different frozen product to offer something new. The zoo is also looking for a refrigerated machine to add packaged snacks (candy, crackers, etc.) to one of the machine groups.
Ranked as the highest attended zoo in the Southeast with 1.1 million in annual attendance, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla., has a very diverse group of visitors ranging from its annual members to visiting tourists.
“We have a variety of vending machines for cold drinks including Pepsi (approximately 25) and Zephyrhills water (approximately 15),” said Kimmie Petrocky, retail manager for the zoo. “The drink machines are very popular due to our extreme heat and their availability throughout the park.”
The vending machines are located throughout the pathways of the entire park, which are the areas with the heaviest foot traffic. Additionally, the zoo has machines located in each “special area” of the zoo to provide guests the option of having a cold drink whenever they choose.
The zoo, like many others around the country, doesn’t offer food through vending machines because it has full service restaurants on the property.
With an all-time high of 200,000 visitors in 2012, the Abilene Zoo in Abilene, Texas, is most famous for its giraffe feedings. When people patrol the zoo during the Lone Star State’s hottest days, they are eager to find something to drink.
“We currently have four Coca Cola machines placed in high-traffic areas,” said Emily Thompson, concession manager at the Abilene Zoo, Abilene, Texas. “We have three set up at the front entrance and one other at the end of the zoo. That position seemed suitable because there is nothing else at that end of the zoo.”
Although the zoo once had food vending machines, it took them out two years ago because of competition between the concession stand and vending machines.
Moody Gardens is a multi-faceted tourist complex in Galveston, Texas, which attracts between 500,000 to 1,000,000 guests per year to its zoo and aquarium.
With 1.5 million gallons of water and more than 10,000 marine animals, the Aquarium Pyramid showcases the complex beauty of the North Pacific, South Pacific, South Atlantic and Caribbean in four exhibits within the 10-story blue-glass aquarium building, located within Moody Gardens.
“We have approximately 50 or more vending machines across our property, mainly consisting of beverage dispensers,” said Andres Castaneda, the visitor center executive chef at Moody Gardens, who oversees the vending operation. “The guests seem to enjoy the simplicity of just walking up to any vending unit without the need to search for a restaurant or concession kiosk.”
Moody Gardens is planning on adding vending equipment to several of its employee lounges.
“These will feature favorites from breakfast sandwiches to candy bars,” Castaneda said. “In an industry like ours, we have people working around the clock to help keep our grounds up to par. While we would like to offer around the clock service from our restaurant and concessions, we just can’t be profitable. Vending machines are the best way to help offset costs.”
The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., tried its luck with one vending machine featuring healthy food options that was installed in 2011, but the experiment is ending in early 2013 because it wasn’t getting the interest that was hoped.
“We don’t offer much food and beverage to begin with because the aquarium was set up to be a driver to bring people to downtown Chattanooga and we didn’t want to compete with the restaurants,” said Tom Benson, general manager of the aquarium. “People didn’t seem interested enough to make it worthwhile.”
Paul Karros, general manager for the Nashville Zoo, Nashville, Tenn., said the zoo only offers beverage vending machines, with seven available on the property.
The zoo had 787,000 guests in 2012, with roughly 70 percent from the Middle Tennessee area.
“We prefer to sell freshly prepared items in our stands, but there is a value to offering vending machines,” he said. “It’s more for convenience and helping with off-hour sales, so we keep them at natural stopping locations or remote areas where people do not have the concession stand option.” –

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