From the hot ramen dispensing Yo-Kai Express to fresh salads whipped up by Chowbotics’ Sally, we are entering a golden age of vending machines. Tucked into just about any corner of a busy building and operating autonomously 24 hours a day, vending machines are poised to disrupt what and how we eat. That is, unless regulators disrupt the rise of vending machines first.
The crux of the problem is that like so many things, municipal regulations lag behind technological innovations. Laws on the books around vending machines were made back when vending machines were just pre-packaged snacks and sodas. But vending machines nowadays dispense all manner of fresh food like salads and açai bowls, which are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
Given this new vector for potential food poisoning, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene stepped in and actually forced all Farmers Fridges in NYC to temporarily shut down while the city figured it out, which the two parties eventually did. From the NYT article:
In negotiations over the last month, the department and the company have agreed that each Farmer’s Fridge machine will be treated, for the most part, as a restaurant — or “food service establishment,” per the health code. Every machine will require a permit, inspections and the same kind of letter grade posted everywhere from McDonald’s to Le Bernardin.
Food vending machines already jump through a lot of regulatory hoops just to be able to serve food in the first place. There are plenty of rules about the construction of these machines that include using food safe materials and not having angled corners (so bacteria doesn’t build up). And as Yo-Kai and Briggo have learned, there is also another layer of compliance for things like access for the visually impaired that must be met when installing machines at airports.
But NYC taking note of these newfangled vending machines could spark a new wave of rules across different cities that startups must comply with. City governments, always on the lookout for new revenue, probably won’t pass up the chance to impose new fines on high-tech vending machines. Companies like Chowbotics and Fresh Bowl in particular, both of which dispense fresh salads, will probably face greater scrutiny, but new administrative procedures are likely to impact companies like Yo-Kai and Basil Street as well.
As long as the regulations don’t become too onerous, this new scrutiny is probably a good thing. Even Farmers Fridge expressed empathy for NYC regulators in the Times piece, saying “New York regulators genuinely seem to be acting out the desire to keep people safe and understand a new business model. You always have to manage the chaos when you’re doing something new and different.”
Move fast and break things may work for software startups, but when it comes to the food we eat, slowing down and making sure it’s safe is probably a good thing.