No one gets excited about buying their lunch from a machine, but that might change if they offered something other than chocolate and potatoes.
Will wonders never cease: a Belgian company has invented a vending machine that cooks and dispenses frites cooked in beef dripping, complete with a sachet of mayonnaise or tomato sauce. It's a modified version of the chip-dispensing machines manufactured in China for Break time Solutions. So far there is only one of the machines, outside a Brussels supermarket, but you can bet your last sachet of ketchup that the firm will be hoping to roll them out if the idea catches on.
My big question is whether the idea ought to catch on at all.
To begin with, I don't think I want to consume around 450 calories on something that was cooked by a machine (much less pay €2.50 per 135g portion for the privilege). That's around 18% of the recommended calorie intake for men. Make no mistake: I am not opposed to chips. I love them, and I eat them almost every time I go to a restaurant that sells them. But the key word there is restaurant, where they're, more often as not, cooked in vegetable oil rather than dripping, like most machine chips. Yes there are already a lot of chip machines out there; you can even watch a video of one of them in action.
My more general reservation arises from a day spent wandering around Avex, the annual exhibition of the Automatic Vending Association held in June at the NEC in Birmingham. Vending is probably the least glamorous sector of the food industry. "People respect catering, but a vending machine is just a big box," admits Tracey Graham of Abercromby Vending. But it is very big business: around £1.65bn a year. For many years it has offered, in the words of Toby Hanbury of the Healthy Vending Company, "lots of different types of chocolate and potato". But nowadays, many vendors are recognising that they need to branch out by offering options that are not designed to deliver maximum figures for fat, sugar, and calories in general.
And they're succeeding, aided by demand from both consumers (often children) and institutions. Hospitals, schools, police authorities and other enlightened employers recognise that there is more to vending than Twix, Quavers and Red Bull.
But is the healthier option always going to be just low-fat crisps and sugar-free colas? Don't believe it. As part of the Avex event, the Culinary Arts Management faculty at University College Birmingham set its students the project of creating and devising commercial plans for fresh, healthy snacks and meals that could be dispensed from vending machines. I was involved in judging the final, and I can tell you that there was some incredibly good food in there.
Like all the judges, I was bowled over by Gail Pastries, a gluten-free line with five different savoury fillings, which won the top prize, and also by Caulipockets, pasties made with gluten-free flour made from cauliflower. Both these products gave me a new faith in the possibilities of gluten-free pastry. (I was also a big fan of Dog in a Box, a decent hot dog with various trimmings including fine coleslaw - not so healthy perhaps, but a lot tastier than I'd expect from a machine.)
Eating from a vending machine is not exactly a life-affirming event. No one ever says: "Hooray - I'm going to buy lunch from the machine in the corridor"- but sometimes we're all forced to, whether at work, an airports, or (worst of all) a hospital. In that situation, I'd much rather sate my hunger with something that doesn't consist mainly of sugar, starch, and fat. Not if there's a choice, anyway. Would you do the same? If a vending machine was offering to shell out healthy food, would you believe it - and would you be interested?
This Belgian vending machine, introduced in 2006, delivers chips with 30% less fat, prepared without oil. Photograph: REX/Etienne Ansotte