What’s behind the indestructible appeal of the robotic snack?
A minute before midnight on 21 July 2021, as passengers staggered sleepily through Manchester airport, I stood wringing my hands in the glow of a vending machine that was seven feet tall, conspicuously branded with the name of its owner – BRODERICK – and positioned like a clever trap between arrivals and the taxi rank. Standard agonies. Sweet or savoury? Liquid or something to munch? I opted for Doritos, keying in a three-digit code and touching my card to the reader so that the packet moved jerkily forwards, propelled by a churning plastic spiral and tipped into the well of the machine. My Doritos landed with a thwap, a sound that always brings relief to the vending enthusiast, because there hasn’t been a mechanical miscue. Judged by the clock, which now read 12am, it was the UK’s first vending-machine sale of the day. Automatic Hard Cover Making Machine
Nine hours later, I was sitting in a spruce office in the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe, drinking coffee with John “Johnny Brod” Broderick, the man who owned and operated that handsome airport machine. I’d had an idea to try to capture 24 hours in the life of vending machines. These weird, conspicuous objects! With their backs against the wall of everyday existence, they tempt out such a peculiar range of emotions, from relief to frustration, condescension to childish glee. For decades I’d been a steady and unquestioning patron. I figured that by spending some time in the closer company of the machines and their keepers, by immersing myself in their history, by looking to their future, I might get to the bottom of their enduring appeal. What made entrepreneurs from the Victorian age onwards want to hawk their goods in this way? What made generations of us buy? Johnny Brod seemed a good first person to ask.
Freckle-tanned, portly and quick to laugh, Broderick has a playful exterior that conceals the fiery heart of a vending fundamentalist. He is a man so invested in the roboticised transmission of snacks that, come Halloween, Johnny Brod has been known to park a machine full of sweets in his driveway, letting any costumed local kids issue their demand for treats via prodded forefinger. With his brother Peter and his father, John Sr, he runs the vending empire Broderick’s Ltd, its 2,800 machines occupying some of the most sought-after corridors and crannies of the UK. The Broderick family sugar and sustain office workers, factory workers, students, gym goers, shoppers and schoolchildren. They pep up breaktimes in a nuclear power station. If you’ve ever wolfed a postpartum Snickers in the maternity ward at Chesterfield or Leeds General, or turned thirsty while waiting to fly out of Stansted or Birmingham airports, then you’ve almost certainly shopped, at one mechanical remove, with Johnny Brod. He thanks you.
The coffee we drank that morning had trickled into cardboard cups from one of his own hot-beverage makers. Business had been hurt badly by Covid, he said. There had been one wretched day in the spring of 2020 when he awoke to find himself not the owner of the second-largest fleet of vending machines in the UK, but instead, of “timebombs. All these machines of ours in places we couldn’t access. All full of perishable food.” After enduring months of closed workplaces, abandoned airports and dead campuses, the Brodericks had lost millions on foregone Twirls and Mini Cheddars. Even so, Johnny Brod was bullish, insisting that the pandemic presented him with opportunities, too.
As he led me on a tour of his Wythenshawe headquarters, I told him about my early hours purchase from a Broderick machine at the airport. Talk about a smooth transaction, I said. No snagging! I imagined he would be pleased to hear this, but he twitched his head in frustration, as if at a grave breach of etiquette. Vending people hated it, he explained to me, this unexamined expectation of mechanical failure. Modern machines contained many failsafes against botched vends. Despite this, the one time that Johnny Brod could remember his beloved industry trending on Twitter, a cruel joke had done the rounds. “About change being inevitable. Except from a vending machine.”
Every one of his machines, he countered, was fitted with a contactless card reader. Since Covid, people didn’t want to touch anything they didn’t have to. Big change was sweeping through automated vending, and the first thing to go was small change. As cash sales tumbled in 2020 and 2021, and contactless sales climbed, the Brodericks had been the beneficiary of new and better information about their customers. Pre-Covid, not only did they have to go and fetch someone’s coppery quid, then count it – they didn’t even know whose quid it was. Now the tycoons of vending understood us better. Johnny Brod had released a smartphone app that tempted people with discounts in return for permission to track their vending habits.
He led us into a control room that had large screens mounted on the walls and employees arranged Nasa-style, facing screens on which stationary dots and travelling arrows identified thousands of vending machines and the technicians who roved between them. We watched a live ticking record of the day’s sales activity, north to Aberdeen, south to the Isle of Wight. A couple of quick clicks on a technician’s computer and we were marvelling at the snacking history of a loyal, I would say fanatical, Broderick customer in Manchester, someone who must have been sourcing two full meals a day from behind glass. While Johnny Brod made a note to slip this customer a thank-you tenner via the app, I asked his team if they’d be able to find the record of my midnight Doritos. A few keyboard taps and there it was.
The Doritos fell from their spiral at midnight, closely followed by a sachet of peanut M&Ms, a stubby Mars and a bottle of water. What happened next in the wider world of these machines? I contacted a number of Johnny Brod’s competitors, outfits of all sizes, and asked them to share with me similar sales data for that day in July. I enlisted volunteers to help me track vending activity around the globe. Everywhere mouths watered, spirals turned. A world of people bent double, their hands patting blindly inside retrieval wells, claiming juice boxes, cola bottles, cereal bars, gum, whatever they’d bought, whatever they craved.
A t 12.45am, a white-chocolate Twix dropped into the well of a machine in Blackfriars in London. At a taxi depot in Belfast, drivers on overnight standby thumbed in coins to buy keep-awake Cokes. Cans of sugar-free Tango slammed down in the surgeons’ staffroom at an Edinburgh hospital. Bottles of Mountain Dew, already long past expiry, turned another hour older inside a Covid-shuttered office in North Carolina. A Japanese accountant, several hours ahead of Europe and the US in a southern prefecture called Ehime, eyed the familiar choices in a cup-noodle machine by his desk. At 4.14am, UK time, a night owl in Newcastle bought Haribo. As the sun rose on Dundee, an employee at a packing factory turned the Perspex carousel of a chilled food machine, sliding back a sprung door, choosing for breakfast a shrink-wrapped sausage roll.
At 7.31 am, on a train-station platform in Wakefield in West Yorkshire, a machine was tapped for Tango Orange as the first morning commuters came through. Wakefield is the birthplace of automated vending. This is where the world began its determined effort to uproot the salesperson from the sale. In the 1850s, an inventor here patented a “self-acting machine” for the dispensation of stamps. Later, in the 1880s, a cast-iron contraption shaped like a trident and painted post-box red, patented by the Sweetmeat Automatic Delivery Company of London, was the first machine to vend comestibles. Before the end of the century, beer and wine fountains became fashionable in Paris. In the US, gumball machines sprouted everywhere. British law dictated that tobacconists must close their doors at 8pm, so unattended cigarette dispensers were bolted to the pavements outside.
As the social historian Kerry Segrave notes in her 2002 book, Vending Machines, the moment these “silent salesmen” appeared on the streets, they were viewed as fair game to be swindled. Tricking vending machines was called “slugging”, because you fed in cheap brass slugs instead of money. Hundreds of worthless metal lozenges advertising boot polish were found inside a single machine in south-west London in 1914. More than a century later, Johnny Brod told me that sluggers were still at large, only these days they tended to use counterfeit currency. He once had a shoebox full of recovered dud coins in his Wythenshawe office, but it was stolen during a break-in.
Back in 1926, the battle against the cheats brought the Fry family into vending. And the Fry family changed the whole game. BE Fry was an inventor in St Louis, Missouri, who noted that the machines in his city were gullible enough to be fooled by cardboard circles. He came up with an improved coin-swallowing mechanism that would answer to nickels and dimes or nothing, he swore. By the 1940s, Fry’s family business, renamed National Vendors, was booming. National Vendors established many of the industry customs that hold sway today. Roving technicians on the roads. A sales team on the phones back at HQ, fighting off turf incursions from rivals, signing new sites to new contracts.
Every vending machine is a battleground. Profits are ruthlessly haggled over. Competition for spots is intense. Broadly speaking, the vending game is built on deals between operators (who own machines and have the skills to install them, fix them, constantly fill them with fats and sugars) and site owners (who have the rights to advantageous pieces of land). Either a machine is placed on private property – say, a factory, where the site owner surrenders profits to the operator in return for keeping a workforce fed and present – or, a machine is placed somewhere public, inside a teeming airport, for instance. Here the site owner will expect a cut of each item sold, anywhere from 10% to 30%.
Those midnight Doritos at Manchester airport cost me £1.10. Though Johnny Brod, the operator, would not say how much of a cut went to the site owner, Manchester Airports Group, he did acknowledge that he made 22p in profit per Doritos packet. (And that Manchester Airport Group made more.) We were discussing this in headquarters when his father, John Sr, wandered through the office, ready to reminisce about the old days. John Sr explained how he founded the business in the 1960s with a single National Vendors machine, imported from the US. He struck a deal to put it in the foyer of Macclesfield baths. Everything escalated from there.
As the Broderick business grew, the family watched their rivals big and small start to eat each other. For the past 20 years or so, global vending has been dominated by corporations that have carved up the world into domains, buying and absorbing regional operators. The big fish in Japan is a vending company called Glory. In the US, it’s Crane. Europe is ruled by Selecta, founded in Zurich in 1957 and owned by the Swiss private-equity firm KKR since 2015. From its English outpost in Hemel Hempstead, Selecta bosses the UK market, with 80,000 machines scattered around hotels, transport hubs and petrol stations. On more than one occasion, Johnny Brod said, he’d received speculative phone calls from Selecta about the possibility of a buyout. But the Brodericks always told Selecta no. Unfinished business.
As Johnny Brod explained to me in the Wythenshawe office, the post-pandemic world was one that needed feeding to an ever-greater degree by unmanned food stations. He had secretive concept sketches on his phone, and prototype machines behind a locked laboratory door at his headquarters, all part of a plan to help usher in a new vending age. I made him promise to show me the secret lab after lunch.
L unchtime. In Belfast, that same day, Emmet Oppong walked into a taxi depot near his home carrying as many Cokes as he could handle. He also had pouches of midget gem sweets, massive Twix Xtras and three types of Wrigley’s gum. Weeks earlier, this 21-year-old business graduate had become the owner of a beige and somewhat time-ravaged vending machine that was, in fact, a little older than Oppong himself. He bought it from an online broker for £100 and had since spent about £500 trucking it around, renting storage space, pondering locations, till he found it a home among the taxi drivers. Oppong unlocked the machine’s front and began to feed in packets and cans.
He was drawn to vending because he liked the idea of earning money while he slept, ate, studied, interviewed for other jobs, and in general applied his energies elsewhere. Ignoring for a moment the fierce battle for plots, the maintenance stresses, the logistical feats required to keep far-flung machines stocked and clean, at the core of any vendor’s ambition there is often a dream of becoming rich while doing better things. This dream is not always achievable. The second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-hand machines being sold online are a testament to the many dabblers who plunge in only to beat an eventual retreat. But Oppong was doing alright so far. A few more midget gems sold, a bit more gum, and soon he expected to break even on his £600 investment. Perhaps today.
Before that summer, Oppong had never looked inside a vending machine or wondered how they functioned. Then he became the owner of a model called a SnackMart, which came to him wrapped in dusty cellophane, with alien interior workings. He spent a fortnight in a storage unit, stood before the machine with an owner’s manual in hand, trying to distinguish what from what. He learned that “spacers” were clamps that kept slender items, such as drinks cans, snug in their rack. “Product expellers” were slip-on tongues for the spirals that helped send puffier items such as crisps on their reluctant drops to the well. An evaporation unit above the door sucked in moisture and stopped the glass from steaming over. Though the outer facades of vending machines have become jazzier, and payment methods have modernised, the insides of most vending machines have barely changed in decades.
Oppong followed certain fundamental laws of vending. He put his Twix Xtras and some Maltesers down on the bottom shelves, nearest the SnackMart’s fridge unit. Crisps were placed in the warmest part of the machine, up at the top. The midget gems could go anywhere, really, and today he decided to give them a try in primetime – halfway along, halfway up. In vending, this part of the job, as delicate as flower arrangement, is known as planogramming. How best to spread the wares? Fiona Chambers, who runs the vending company SV24-7 in the Scottish town of Alloa with her husband, Ian, puts much thought into planograms. She told me she likes two central spirals of KitKats, two of Twirls, these being her champion sellers. Declan Sewell, the young and ambitious CEO of a company called Decorum Vending in Portsmouth, will always, always put Snickers in the middle. Sewell told me he preferred to keep more colourfully packaged items on the fringes of his machines, to catch the eye and draw attention across his range.
If the glass or Perspex window of a vending machine is like a canvas, these operators aimed to paint a picture of abundance. “You don’t want the customer saying, och, there’s nothing to choose from,” Chambers said. At the same time, margins being tightest for operators in the industry’s middle tier, she and Sewell couldn’t afford to fill their machines so generously that items expired before they were bought. Certain planogramming wheezes mitigated against this. Items put close to a button panel, Sewell insisted, sold quicker than items below or above. Chambers had read an academic study that claimed to prove options on the left outsold options on the right, at least in Europe and the US, because we read these machines how we read our books.
Oppong closed the front of his SnackMart, locking it carefully. The names given to vending machines are reliably charming, sometimes hinting at their places of manufacture. Spain makes Mistrals. The US makes Cascades. Germans make Bistros! (exclamation mark included). Italian machines tend to be given musical names: Operas, Melodias, Sinfonias, Jazzes. There are machines out there called Shoppers, Shoppertrons, SuperStacks, NarrowStacks. There are Brios, Astros, Tangos, Sambas, Festivals, Visions. There are BevMaxes, Polyvends, Merchants – and SnackMarts, which were created by a British engineer called Richard Brinsley and his company Westomatic. “West”, for their west-of-England base, “omatic” because what do you think.
I went to visit Brinsley one day at his workshop in Devon. In a part of one warehouse, malfunctioning SnackMarts were lined up for repair, while other, sadder machines, like a miserably rusted Kenco dispenser, were beyond salvation and awaited final destruction. Something of a pioneer when it came to vending English tea, Brinsley was the first to bring to market a machine that brewed from leaves, not powder, in the 1980s. He called that creation the Temprano, “because it was ahead of its time”, Brinsley told me. He led us into a part of the warehouse where a brand new hot-drinks dispenser was coming into being. “We’re going to call this one the Autorista,” he said, as he stood in front of a huge purple machine, the first in the world, according to Brinsley, that could prepare a coffee with real milk or real cream.
“One of our electronics guys came up with the name,” he said, hitting a few buttons and automatically barista-ing out a cappuccino that contained fresh cow’s milk. Johnny Brod in Manchester, obsessional about new kit, had placed an order for the first 25 Autoristas that Brinsley could manufacture. In order for this latest innovation to be effective in the field, both men knew, an Autorista would have to be visited every 24 hours by a technician who knew how to clean its interior pipes and flush out the old milk and cream before it soured. If this was the future of unattended sales, I thought out loud, it was going to require a lot more human attention than in the past. But leaving the Autorista alone and full of spoiling dairy did not bear thinking about, Brinsley said.
Over in Belfast, Oppong had the option of leaving his SnackMart to take care of itself for weeks at a time. Out of sheer enthusiasm, he had been visiting the taxi depot almost every day. He popped in mornings and nights, to feed in new stock and to pull out the coin tray, relishing the weight of the drivers’ one- and two-pound coins. Declan Sewell of Decorum Vending had rigged his own fleet with wifi units so that he could track his live sales by smartphone, refreshing for updates like a fan following the Saturday football. Fiona Chambers in Scotland relied on reports that came nightly by email. Oppong was still tracking profits with a pen and paper. He tallied the latest. Nearly there.
A few timezones west, the US awoke, its 7 million vending machines getting busier and busier as another working day began. An IT analyst in North Carolina, returning to his office for the first time since the start of the pandemic, decided to buy a Mountain Dew from the break-room machine. He noticed when it was too late that the bottle had expired 16 months earlier, in March 2020. “If I die,” the analyst tweeted, opening the Dew anyway, “just know I died doing what I love.” I got in touch with him. He survived. His drink was only a little flat.
Vending machines do kill their human patrons every so often. A US study in 1998 recorded 37 deaths and 113 injuries over a 20-year period, which amounted to an average of 1.85 kills per annum. This statistic, never formally updated or corrected since, sometimes prompts the claim that vending machines are deadlier than sharks. In the 1980s, cans of drink were left for the taking on top of vending machines near Hiroshima in Japan. These cans had been deliberately laced with a potent herbicide. Twelve people died and their killer was never caught.
Vending machines can be vessels for all manner of plots, ambitions and initiatives. In Glasgow, that same day in July, health officials unveiled a free-to-use dispenser of sterilised needles, an attempt to curb infections among the city’s drug users. At the same time, over in California, the porn actors Carmela Clutch and Kyle Mason debuted a film that had for its setting the patch of ground in front of a sex-toy dispenser. Carmela had her hand stuck in the flap. Kyle, as an arriving technician, caught a vibe. The scene developed from there. While I was in Manchester I read news reports about a civic effort in Nairobi to put sanitary-pad dispensers in schools. A similar scheme was announced for women’s restrooms in Tokyo, where, that same day, hundreds of journalists were flying in ahead of the Olympic Games. On arrival at Tokyo’s Olympic Village, international guests were offered the chance to buy locally apt souvenirs in a locally apt way, via robotic vend.
If Wakefield is the literal birthplace of the automated sale, Japan is the spiritual home. There they vend umbrellas, ice-cream, fancy dress. In Nagasaki, there is a machine that sells the edible chrysalises of silkworms. You can vend fresh tomatoes in Kobe and, in Tatsuno, fresh oysters. In Osaka, during the summer of 2021, a Japanese airline had started selling tickets to mystery destinations from a machine that asked 5,000 yen, or £30, per turn. This concept was so popular that 10,000 tickets were sold by the end of 2021 and the airline put duplicate machines in Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka.
At the last formal count, conducted by a trade body in December 2020, there were 2.7m vending machines spread around Japan: one for every 46 citizens, the highest density anywhere. Affection for vending is so pronounced that a machine selling something unique may become the subject of fascination, even pilgrimage. On 21 July, while I was in Manchester with the Brodericks, and while Emmet Oppong was keeping a close eye on his Belfast machine, a Japanese accountant named Masaharu Mizota was coming to the end of his day in Ehime. Mizota had recently learned about an unusual, indeed, one-of-a-kind machine in Uchiko, a small town on the Oda River, and he daydreamed about taking a roadtrip to try it. Would it be crazy to drive for hours to Uchiko, just to push a coin into a slot and punch a few buttons?
Vending machines have the power to beguile a certain type of person. As I am one of those types, wandering up to scuffed Perspex wherever it is to be found, often overpaying in this way for my Boosts or my ready salted crisps, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about their hypnotic power. There is a logic that underpins the will to vend to other people. It’s that allure of passive income. The operator of a vending machine gets to experience the idle fancy of exhausted shopkeepers everywhere, selling their wares without getting up early in the morning, without necessarily getting up at all. But what is behind the will to be vended to? This is more complicated. I think it has something to do with the proffered combination of convenience, novelty and nostalgia.
Mizota told me that he felt the culture of automated vending to be a part of his culture as a Japanese citizen. He was as willing to take a long journey to try out a novel machine as he would have been to visit a monument or a place of natural beauty. Mizota was eight hours ahead of me in the UK, almost ready to go to bed. Before he did so he checked his maps, figuring out a route for the morning.
I n Manchester it was mid-afternoon. Leading me into a room at his headquarters that he called his concept lab, Johnny Brod waved an arm at a pair of unplugged prototypes. “My babies,” he called them. His actual children and even a couple of grandchildren happened to be visiting that day. If everything went according to plan, Johnny Brod said, these prototypes would secure his family’s fortune long into the future. He was nervous about me repeating specific details, lest his competitors gain a jump. But the gist of what Johnny Brod was plotting went as follows.
Many workplace canteens, closed during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, had not reopened, or not at their former scale. For reasons of in-house virus management, employers were no longer so eager to have employees roam out at lunch to the nearest sandwich shop or supermarket. Those high-street retailers still wanted to reach a hungry workforce, however, and Johnny Brod hoped to become the bridge. He wanted to run new-wave machines of his own design inside offices and factories, as one-stop robotic canteens. There was a prototype up and running in the distribution centre of a well-known UK retailer, from which the Brodericks vended salad bowls, fruit bowls, “anything you’d see in a garage forecourt. Soon we’ll be diversifying into sushi. Crudités!”
These manoeuvrings were part of a wider shift that had been taking place across the vending industry for a decade. Back in the early 2010s, innovators in the US came up with an alternative to the traditional spiral machines that they called micro-markets. Take out its turning coils, leave in the shelves, and a vending machine is essentially a transparent larder. What if customers could open the door of that larder and remove by hand whatever they could afford? Instead of being stocked with products of a uniform shape – products that could be relied on to move forward in the embrace of a spiral then fall in predictable ways – a machine could sell anything. Loose golf balls. Bikinis. A jeroboam of champagne. A curved banana. Over time, the tempting possibility of vending fresh fruit had frustrated the tinkerers like Johnny Brod, because fruit tends to create jams inside traditional machines, figuratively and sometimes literally.
Micro-markets full of swipe-to-open larders and fridges began to open in offices, factories and prisons across the US. Sensitive shelves and CCTV cameras helped determine who had bought what. In Europe and the UK, Selecta opened about 150 micro-markets which, at least until the summer of 2021, were in workplaces not accessible to curious outsiders. That week in July 2021, however, Selecta had opened a micro-market for use by anybody in East Croydon train station in London. A small retail unit by the gates had been fitted with larders full of fruit tubs, wide-bottomed milkshakes, shallow nut trays, Jaffa Cakes in sealed blue parcels. Everything was left unattended, at the disposal of any passing customer with a credit card.
For most of the morning on 21 July 2021, according to figures later provided to me by Selecta, the East Croydon micro-market went unused. Then, a canned latte, a ham-and-cheese croissant later, sales crept up. By mid-afternoon, as I stood in Johnny Brod’s lab, about 20 items were being removed from the London micro-market every hour. Hummus chips. Bircher muesli pots. Juices laced with ginseng. Johnny Brod was so unnerved by Selecta’s innovative leap, he’d sent a spy south.
He checked and rechecked his phone, waiting to receive word from East Croydon. Next to his concept lab there was a large staff lounge, its walls lined with old, experimental Broderick’s machines, and we killed some time in there. A few of the old machines had no touchscreen. One had only touchscreen, its entire front replaced by a doorway-sized digital display. Johnny Brod had been among the first to embrace screens, back in 2011, an innovation that later became the industry norm. But his all-screen, only-screen model never took off; customers, it turned out, needed to see the object of their desire. Now this lone model stood as monument to noble failure in the Wythenshawe lounge. At last his phone buzzed and Johnny Brod read his spy’s report on the new micro-market. “It’s quite nice apparently,” he said, sounding forlorn.
A t 5.51pm the snack machine in Blackfriars in London sold a porridge-to-go bar. At 6.04pm, a mango drink. It was one of those newer vending machines that could talk, and it spoke to customers with a robotic, feminine voice, advising, apologising. Another machine, many thousands of miles away, told prospective customers: “My name is James, I serve delicious snacks.” James was situated in an apartment block overlooking the Langat River in Malaysia. He had his own Twitter account. Spend any time immersed in the vending world and you start to see that these machines, insentient cumbersome things, are repositories for the most unlikely human notions and emotions. There was once a drinks dispenser in Singapore that had to be cuddled before it would unloose a can. That was a bid to teach us something about spontaneous acts of compassion, courtesy of Coca-Cola Incorporated.
We bring our prejudices to these machines. We have ungracious feelings for them that they know nothing about; we anticipate their betrayal. There was once a Seinfeld episode dedicated to George Constanza’s furious efforts to secure a snagged Twix. When Johnny Brod lent a branded coffee-maker to the producers of the ITV drama Cold Feet, he was pained to see it malfunctioning for dramatic purposes. (“And our competitors love putting clips of that online.”) In one of my earliest London memories I am on an underground platform, watching a disgruntled man in a raincoat apply a handmade out-of-order sign to a Cadbury’s chocolate dispenser. He’d fed in his coin. But no Dairy Milk. I still remember his appalled expression, his wounded grace as he warned off others.
This initial encounter did not prejudice me against the machines. Instead, I’ve always found them to emanate reassurance, particularly so during moments of dislocation: jetlagged layovers, late-night jobs, early starts. I first noticed their palliative effect at school, when we called it going venders (“You going venders?”) and when a visit to the machines meant a respite from classwork, junior lust, the bickering over which bands were best. One day a savvy pupil set himself up in competition with the school venders. He started to sell the same snacks, cheaper, from his backpack. I stayed loyal to the machines. They had inexhaustible patience, they let you ponder every option, walk up, walk away, malinger at the glass, wallow in a pre-purchase. I think what comforted me then, as now, was their height, their stuffedness, their immobility, their always-on-ness, their middle-of-the-night-ness, their there-til-the-end-ness.
A decade ago, when my wife went into a long and intermittently frightening labour that lasted for days, my bleary walks to the hospital vending machines took on the character of therapy, necessary little trips out of chaos to find something sturdy, upright, understood. How right it felt that in Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel The Road, the last can of Coke in a ruined world had to be plucked from the innards of an old vending machine. So often they are a comfort of final resort, as anybody who has concocted a contingency meal in a budget hotel or a motorway service-station will know. They facilitate jokes, complaints, unhealthy diets, but the emotions these machines inspire are real. I know of at least one love story that has a vending machine as its core. Fiona Chambers of SV24-7 first met her husband, Ian, when she was a salesperson for a drinks firm. Ian was a buyer. “I’m not saying that we flirted, exactly,” she recalled, “but hey-ho. I sold him a shitload of Cokes.”
The more time I spent with Johnny Brod, the more I saw how sincerely concerned he was for his fleet. He had a horror of unclean machines, having once inherited a second-hand BevMax that had spores of mould growing in its corners. He’d been known to clamber down on his belly in malls or on airport concourses, to peer under retrieval wells, dragging out chocolate wrappers, recovering abandoned flip-flops. His machines were like his pets or his zoo animals. He maintained them with fastidious care, and he couldn’t let me leave Manchester, he said, without taking me on safari to visit a prized specimen.
Over in Leeds General, said Johnny Brod, he owned an absolute beauty by the benches in A&E, a machine that was much used by fight-night drunks. “Insane on weekends … we can’t fill it fast enough.” And he loved his BevMaxes by the luggage belt in the local airport. “Because if that belt breaks down, I’ve got you trapped.” But the machine he wanted to show me was in Manchester’s Trafford Centre shopping mall. No gimmicks, no tricks, just a boss dispenser in a prime location, capable of slurping in thousands of pounds a month. He drove us over in an SUV.
“There,” Johnny Brod whispered, signalling for us to halt on a concourse near a spotless, richly stocked BevMax. It loomed, looking tempting. “Wait,” he muttered. It was like watching a well-baited snare. He knew it wouldn’t take long. Soon a young shopper paused on her way through from clothes and jewellery, leaning in to ponder the choice. Water? Fanta Lemon? When she kept walking, I told Johnny Brod: tough luck.
“Wait,” he repeated. And here she came, returning for water after all. Fanta, too.
I n Belfast, that night, when Emmet Oppong looked in on his vending machine before bed, no midget gems had been sold. Crinkle-cut crisps had done better, and as usual every Coke he could fit inside was gone. Oppong clicked his pen and did some sums. As long as he wrote off the personal labour, he was satisfied his SnackMart had now paid for itself. He was newly in profit: a vending entrepreneur. Months later, in autumn 2021, and trading as Em Vending Solutions, Oppong would go on to triple the size of his operation, purchasing a pair of silvery machines covered in cartoony decals of Homer Simpson and the Tasmanian Devil, £750 the pair.
As I came away from Manchester that night in July, I took with me a final image of Johnny Brod, expansionist-king of UK vending, owner of a thousands-strong fleet – standing in front of an empty slab of wall in the Trafford Centre. He took photographs. He noted nearby plug points. He couldn’t believe, he said, he hadn’t thought to put a vending machine there yet. The last time we spoke, in spring 2022, he was about to take delivery of his 25 Autoristas. He was considering an expansion into London Heathrow, “where they still have the same shit machines you saw in Love Actually, 20 years ago. And you can print that.”
But back on that July night, at 8.08pm, a swimmer in Glasgow bought a bottle of energy drink from Fiona Chambers’s machine near a public pool. At 9.53pm, Declan Sewell’s chatty machine in Blackfriars sold a final peppermint Aero. A smoked-salmon sandwich and a Pepsi were bought for somebody’s dinner from East Croydon. Soon all this UK trade would slow, purchases continuing in the US, resuming again in waking Asia. It was nearly midnight in the UK when I arrived back in London from Manchester. As I had made the day’s first vend, I thought it would be neat if I made the day’s last vend, too.
I wandered around St Pancras station, trying to find a just-so machine that would suit my appetite, as I provisioned and planogrammed ideal arrangements of confectionary and crisps in my head. After a day with the loquacious Johnny Brod, I was pleased by the knowledge that whatever vending machine I found, it would ask for no conversation. Zero civility. We would commune, if we communed at all, with a poked finger and the warm coins I had in my pocket. Perhaps this is at the heart of the machines’ unique appeal, a displaced misanthropy. Perhaps we transform our gratitude at not having to deal with one more human being today into tenderness for the SnackMarts and Shoppertrons and BevMaxes that feed us and reward us by a path of least resistance.
Under a St Pancras escalator, a couple were dancing in front of an automated jukebox. On a concrete walkway beyond, a machine waited to vend foldable Brompton bikes. I checked the Google alerts on my phone, scrolling through social media, too, learning that a radio producer in Chicago had at that moment bought an attractive sugar-dusted ganache from a machine in a garage off Interstate 55. A cannabis-oil manufacturer had put a dispenser on top of a majestic sandstone mountain in Utah, to deliver balms to achey hikers. An animal sanctuary in Colorado was awarded a patent on a vending machine to be used exclusively by captive apes. “Come find me near the swimming pool,” tweeted James, the Malaysian vending machine, from his fourth-storey berth.
In Japan, it was morning. The accountant Masaharu Mizota woke earlier than usual and climbed aboard his motorbike. He drove south, between mountains, crossing bridges, paying at tolls, following a map that was mounted on his handlebars. He pulled into sleepy Uchiko at about 7.30am and parked by the one-of-a-kind vending machine he’d read about. Of all the things to be sold from an ungainly glass-and-steel machine, it was selling pieces of fragile and beautiful origami. There were folded-paper sea creatures. Delicate flowers and birds and stars. After his long journey, Mizota fed in a 50-yen piece, about 30p, and ran a gloved finger over the buttons, trying to choose.
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