Micro markets big on variety, healthy choices
They're called micro markets, a quiet yet fast-growing trend in the local vending industry where some companies are swapping out coin-operated machines for a virtual carryout.
Once completely dominated by salty deep-fried snacks, high-calorie candy bars and sugary soft drinks, some concession areas have turned into veritable mini convenience stores, a place to buy quality deli sandwiches, chopped salads and fresh fruit.
"We're appealing to the healthier eater and the one who's not as cautious because of the variety we have," said Lawrence Binsky, president of Advantage Food & Beverage, a local vending company and purveyor of the Avanti Market system.
The setup, located in secure buildings with access mostly to employees, is a cross between a convenience store and the self-checkout line at the grocery store.
Consumers choose their food, swipe the bar code and pay with cash, credit or debit cards, or with a personalized ID card that can carry a balance or can automatically deduct the purchase from the employee's paycheck.
Binsky said the system's advantages are many: It eliminates multiple vending-machine transactions and the need for cash, and gives customers direct visual access to the dishes.
"There's a certain percentage, or a large percentage, of the population that will not buy fresh food out of a vending machine," Binsky said.
Advantage Food & Beverage, which has its own commissary kitchen, not only stocks the shelves with soups, salads, fruit and handcrafted sandwiches, but also offers a larger variety of healthy snack bars, baked potato chips and nuts.
Still, people like their occasional indulgences.
"At the end of the day I still sell a lot of Snickers bars," said Binsky, whose company has set up 40 micro markets across the state.
He said there is a 1-percent product loss, attributed to vendor or customer error, or theft, although the individual stations are monitored via video cameras.
Micro markets don't belong everywhere, Binsky said, particularly in high-traffic areas with a transient population.
Since March 1, when new state rules went into effect regulating the markets, the Columbus Board of Health has approved 30 licenses, the most in the state.
Rob Acquista, supervisor of food protection with Columbus Public Health, said the micro markets are considered a Risk Level 1, similar to convenience store, meaning they will be inspected once a year.
Binsky, whose company established its first micro market three years ago, said the Ohio Department of Agriculture had repeatedly threatened to close the vending locations over health concerns.
The evolution of the markets has led to more sophisticated equipment, he said. For example, freezers and refrigerators have self-locking mechanisms when internal temperatures rise above the required levels.
Binsky said more and more employers are catching on to the idea of micro markets.
They can offer rewards incentives, healthier dining alternatives to employees and cut down on the need for workers to leave the building for lunch, particularly if they only have a 30-minute break.
Bricker & Eckler, a law firm in downtown Columbus, adopted the micro market about a year ago.
The firm brought in a dietician to identify the healthier items currently offered by Advantage.
The firm subsidizes the cost of those healthier items. For example, a salad that has been identified by the dietician as a "fit pick" item -- or foods identified as healthier alternatives -- sells in the market for $4.50, but because of the subsidy it costs employees $2.50.
"They're selling very well," said Betsy Wetherby, chief human resources officer for the law firm.
"They've exceeded our expectations," she said. "They probably quadrupled what we were expecting in terms of sales of those items.
"Another big benefit to us is the convenience of the market, that it's available 24-7," Wetherby said.