Vending machines apparently have a long history: the first was allegedly constructed by Heron of Alexandria in about 100 BC. Heron was an inventor who in addition to creating a coin-operated machine dispensing holy water, also invented the first steam-powered engine.
So it is not surprising that over the past two millennia vending machines have diversified into a supplying a wide range of products, from drinks and snacks to flowers, newspapers, books and artworks.
A book vending machine in Łódź, Poland. Photo: Greg Richards
The idea of strange, random stuff being dispensed by machine has always appealed, but what stimulated the current post was a sighting of the “Health Food Wall” at Schiphol Airport. Health food, airports and walls are not ideas that go easily together. Is it possible to get healthy food from a machine at one of the world’s busiest airports?
The Dutch Health Food Wall has been around for a while, serving vegan snacks for those on the go. According to the Food Wall’s inventor Anouk Snelders, the aim is to promote healthy eating, to have a positive impact on the environment and contribute to animal welfare. Health Food Wall is supposed to meet a need for fast healthy food for people who don’t have time to cook.
Photo: Greg Richards
The Health Food Wall may seem strange, but context is everything. There is a long tradition in the Netherlands of getting ‘food from the wall’, as purchasing food from a vending machine is called in Dutch. There is a long history of specialised businesses offering a range of snacks from vending machines, or ‘automats’. This trend first arose in Berlin, where Quisiana opened the world's first automat restaurant in 1895. The Germans then exported the idea (and the machinery) across the Atlantic, with the company Horn & Hardart opening the first American automat in Philidephia in 1902.
The Netherlands was a bit late catching on, with the first chain of automats founded in 1941 in Amsterdam. The FEBO company still provides automat-vended items including krokets, frikandellen, hamburgers and Kaassoufflé, along with a counter where you can get french fries, drinks, and hamburgers. Febo now has 75 branches spread across the Netherlands. The success of Febo and other automat operators turned the concept of ‘eating from the wall’ a part of Dutch cultural heritage.
Food from the wall, the original way.
But the idea of getting food from a machine has spread much further, and has produced some interesting food experiences. One of these is the bread vending machine, as in the Romanian city of Sibiu, for example.
Even in France, where the consumption of fresh bread is baked into the culture, one increasingly encounters baguette dispensers.
Japan is probably the country with the highest density of vending machines in the world. With a total of 5 million vending machines there is 1 for every 23 people. You can take a quick tour of the many different options on this website. Examples include bananas, sake vending machines, which in some cases include the option of an accompanying snack, and even edible insects: “including chocolate-covered silkworms and grasshoppers, dried scorpions and tarantulas, as well as insect udon.” In China, you can get really fresh food from live crab vending machines, which also dispense crab vinegar and ginger tea.
Vending machines have come a long way since Heron’s time. But perhaps the biggest advance is the shift from coin-operated to card-operated machines, which hopefully reduce the chances of losing your money!