Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Vending machines: Pocketful of dreams

Sugar sticks to everything.

Chris Kent knows this, explains this as he runs a rag in and out of the candy-dispensing chute of his second-most profitable vending machine. It’s one of 76 he recently bought.

“I think I’m going to have to bring an SOS pad next time,” says the 34-year-old Kent, kneeling before the machine in a pair of jeans, a silver cross dangling around his neck. “Sugar bonds to everything.”

But not all bonds rendered by the sweets are bad. Come Fridays, Kent’s business of selling 25-cent handfuls of candy strengthen bonds of a different sort: the bond of father to daughters, husband to wife – the bonds of family.

“I have a wife and two kids, and all of us go and work on the machines,” he says of Fridays. “We run through Albuquerque as a family.”

For one day a week – all Kent can manage with his full-time job helping prisons across the state comply with performance standards – the family tends its machines, which sell candy for a quarter from the tucked-away corners of restaurants, bars, shops and offices.

So far, 52 of the 76 machines are placed. Not every machine gets hit every week as the family van passes through Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, but one M&M (or Skittle, pistachio or Reese’s) at a time, the Kents get closer to their dream: turning the part-time business into their only job and making minutes for family time in the process.

Home office on wheels

Inside the Kents’ van, a plastic box full of children’s books rests next to bags of M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces, Skittles and Boston Baked Beans.

Two-year-old Kyleigh Kent, strapped into a car seat, grins and sips milk from a plastic cup. Her sister, 1-year-old Savannah, sits quietly in the back.

Chris leans past his older daughter to give his wife, 24-year-old Andrea, a pile of quarters from the popular machine at Midtown Rentals on Central Avenue Northeast.

During the handoff, he poses a gentle, rhetorical question to Kyleigh in the tones of a proud father: “Are you thirsty?”

She smiles her reply; Chris returns it. Andrea, whose favorite candy is Skittles because her grandfather would always bring her a bag when he visited, asks Chris: Which candy produced the silver soup of quarters overflowing in her hands?

The answer isn’t obvious; three plastic bins make up every vending machine, and Chris takes a moment to remember. In this case, the thickest stack of change – $25.50 worth – came from peanut M&Ms. There was $9.75 worth of Skittles sold, and the bin of plain M&Ms produced $6.75.

Andrea notes the sales in a pink and black three-ring binder full of spreadsheets, one for each vending machine location. The total – $42 – comes to $14.75 more than the total of three weeks earlier.

Multiply those revenues across the 76 machines owned by the Kents and their dream might have some sticking power.

“We would love that . . . for all of us to be able to spend time together and make money doing it,” Andrea says. “That would be really nice.”

Help by the handful

The Kents won’t be the only ones benefiting from any of their success.

Many vending machine operators like them sponsor charities with a small portion of the candy sales. Chris chose the National Children’s Cancer Society because a friend recently died of the disease.

By contracting with the charity, he gets a sticker he can place atop his machine explaining the sponsorship. The charity gets between $1 to $1.50 per sticker, per month, depending on how many stickers are ordered.

It adds up: Vending machines nationwide are expected to bring in about $400,000 for the society in 2006, says Krista Rudd, communications director for the organization.

The donations exceed those received by the National Federation of the Blind, a consumer and advocacy organization for those without vision. It gets roughly $300,000 a year from vending machines it has contracted with around the country, federation President Marc Maurer said.

“Three hundred thousand dollars, to us, is a lot of money,” he says. “It means quite a bit.”

Businesses hosting the machines benefit as well, although not financially. Employees at some cite them as a snack service for customers at the cost of only a little floor space. Others compliment the machines’ fine ability to soften up their midsections.

Bryan Smith, owner of Magic Moments Collectibles at 1433 Wyoming Blvd. N.E., says they’re a way to conveniently connect with charities.

“I try to do stuff for the community as much as I can,” he says. “I figure that’s one way . . . it can help them in some small way.”

Sweet and sour

Some locations, Chris Kent says, house vending machines from competitors along with his own, and he expects more competition to come.

“It’s actually becomes quite a business,” he says.

The Kents’ vending machine route – a route being numerous machines at different locations – once sold for $30,000, said Shelina Griego, a former owner.

Chris Kent wouldn’t say how much he paid for it when he bought the business a handful of weeks ago, but he admitted it wasn’t cheap. Partly because he’s still figuring it out, he prefers not to say how much he makes off the route.

Griego, 27, got out of the business after a year and a half because it failed to meet her expectations.

“It really didn’t make as much money as we were anticipating, and it’s a lot of work, a lot of wear and tear on your vehicle,” she says.

“It’s very competitive and a lot of businesses are really tired of dealing with people who have vending machines.”

She hoped to make $3,000 to $4,000 a month. She says it came closer to $1,000 to $2,000.

“Some machines, they’re emptied after two weeks and you have to go and fill them,” she says. “Other businesses, you’re lucky if you go two months later and there’s one quarter there.”

She had machines stolen, and replacing them can be expensive.

The machines used on the Kents’ route cost $399 each, although discounts are given for large orders, says Ned Weaver, president of Vendstar, a vending machine seller.

In 2005, he says the company sold 55,000 vending machines around the world, a 6 percent to 8 percent jump from 2004.

“Our machine sales,” he says, “have steadily increased every single year.”

Chris Kent says he might expand his route, maybe invest in larger vending machines selling candy bars and sodas. It depends on how well his route performs. Right now, results are mixed, he says.

At Midtown Rentals, where those peanut M&Ms – his most popular candy – earned just more than $25, the haul is so large it drags down his jeans as he fills his pockets. He cheerfully tells the store employee it’s a good day – he’s losing his britches.

But at a paint and body shop, one lonely quarter clattered inside the plastic tray catching the proceeds from Runts, a hard candy in the shape of miniature fruits.

Kent has strategies to boost revenues. He’ll swap poorly selling candies for another. He constantly compares the price of bulk candy at Costco and Sam’s Club. Other tactics for making money off the machines are more subtle. Take the level of candy in a bin; Kent prefers it go no higher than the halfway point.

“If it’s full, they might wonder what’s wrong with the candy,” he says. “If it’s half full, they know it’s OK.”

But there’s another challenge that proves tough to tackle.

“We have to fight not to eat our own stuff,” he says. “We can eat our profits away.”

FACTBOX:25 CENTS AT A TIME

Those quarters can add up. According to a vending industry publication, total sales from all bulk vending machines in the United States came to $411.3 million in 2004.

Here’s a look at the sales of a few types of bulk vendors in 2004:

Nuts and candy vendors had 418,000 machines and sales of $86.1 million. Each machine made about $206 a year.

Vendors of gum balls, chicle gum and wrapped gum had 907,000 machines and sales of $107.9 million. Each machine made about $119 a year.

Vendors selling trinkets such as jewelry and toys inside capsules had 700,500 machines and sales of $177.2 million. Each machine made about $253 a year.

Source: Vending Times, Census of the Industry 2005.

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