The World's Most Awesome Vending Machines
The vending machine business has come a long way since the earliest known coin-op device dispensed holy water to ancient Roman-ruled Egyptians. Today, soda pop, candy bars and potato chips constitute the industry's bread and butter, yet automaton inventors are ever-pushing forward into specialty items — selling everything from live crabs to Lamborghinis. With diversity comes expanding revenue. In Japan, vending machines are a $60 billion industry. In the U.S., it's $22 billion.
To illustrate the fun, we dug in our pockets for spare change, then dove deep in search of the world's most interesting vending machines. Here's a roundup of the planet's coolest coin-op contraptions.
For Sale: Art
Countries: Australia, Austria, United States
North Carolina-based Art-o-mat hit on a novel, money-making idea in 1997 when company founder and local artist Clark Whittington repurposed an old cigarette machine to vend miniature versions of his artworks.
Today, more than 100 retro-style Art-o-mats are spread primarily across the U.S. and stocked with $5 mini masterpieces by some 400 local artists. If you're an artist who wants in on a piece of that coin-op action (50 percent), the company's website has guidelines for artwork submissions.
For Sale: Luxury Cars
Once upon a time, the only cars you could buy from vending machines were Matchbox toys. In 2017, Singapore used-car dealership Autobahn Motors supersized the concept with this 15-story building that dispenses real Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Bentleys.
The tower can stock 60 to 80 cars, displayed in glass compartments. On the ground floor, browse vehicles on a computer touch screen, make a selection, and voila, an elevator brings down an Aston Martin DB11.
For Sale: Cupcakes
Country: United States
Perhaps this list's most profitable machine, California-based Sprinkles Cupcakes debuted the "Cupcake ATM" in 2012 next to its flagship Beverly Hills shop.
The idea sprung from company co-founder, Candace Nelson. Pregnant with a craving for late-night sweets, Nelson was hangry she couldn't get a baked treat at 3 a.m. And so, per Fortune magazine's estimate, a $9-million vending machine business was born.
At locations in California, Texas, Las Vegas and even Disney World, each machine dispenses about 1,000 cupcakes per day, priced at $4.50 to $5.50 each. Ka-ching!
For Sale: Moët & Chandon Champagne
Countries: United Kingdom, United States
Need a bottle of French bubbly in a pinch? This machine will gladly sell you an unshaken, $20 mini-bottle of Moët topped with a handy-dandy sipping spout — no champagne flute required.
The automaton bartender of your dreams debuted at a London department store in 2016, and has since expanded to a few U.S. locations, notably the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton and Las Vegas' Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
For Sale: Gold
Countries: Germany, United Arab Emirates, United States, others
Got a spare $1,500 burning a hole in your pocket? Behold the "Gold to go ATM," which made its glittery 2010 splash in Abu Dhabi. Aimed at wealthy travelers rather than serious gold investors, the gold-plated machine sells 24-carat bars in 1-, 5- and 10-gram sizes, plus an array of gold coins.
Connected to the internet, the ATM's item prices are updated hourly with current gold-market rates, though many buyers report they're way overblown. And if you think a mechanized bullion merchant would make for a fine money-laundering machine, guess again. The high-tech unit is outfitted with a camera and requires a scan of your personal ID.
For Sale: Books
An apparatus selling the printed word dates back nearly two centuries. Though crude, the first book vending machine debuted in London in 1822 and sold "provocative" books. It was followed by the 1937 paperback-dispensing Penguincubator (by Penguin Books) and, ten years later, the Popular Science Book-O-Mat.
From Paris to Tokyo, today you can still slip bills into a mechanical maw for a copy of "Fifty Shades of Grey" or an anime comic. But do it soon. In a world gone digital, book machines are a dying breed.
For Sale: Baked Bread
Countries: Germany, United States, others
Freshly baked bread vending machines have been around a few years, notably in San Francisco's Castro district and at Aldi supermarkets in Germany. But those machines stock half-baked loaves that are simply finished off in the contraption's oven.
In early 2019, things got real with the unveiling of BreadBot, introduced at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. This fully automated marvel makes bread from scratch and turns out ten loaves per hour. No word yet on exactly where you'll find the machines or the per-loaf cost, but it'll be worth it to see this bad boy in action.
For Sale: Ice Cream
Famous for its wide, weird assortment of vending machines, Japan is the place where feeding yen into a slot will net anything from a live rhinoceros beetle to a can of coffee emblazoned with a portrait of William Faulkner and endorsed by Tommy Lee Jones.
Among our favorite performers in Japan's coin-op circus is Yaskawa-kun, the ice cream robot. At the Tokyo Summerland water park, saunter up to the ice cream stand, drop a 100 yen coin (about $1 U.S.) into the machine and watch smiley-face Yaskawa-kun get to work on your perfectly swirled soft-serve cone. Sure, it's creepy, but the bot doesn't give attitude or expect a tip. Win-win! Yum-yum!
For Sale: Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
These are most certainly not your mom's mashed 'taters. At Singapore 7-Eleven convenience stores, a machine by the Maggi company (a division of Nestlé) oozes instant mashed potatoes and a squirt of gravy into a cup that costs $1 U.S. — sickness bag not included.
For Sale: Pizza
Countries: Italy, United Kingdom
If you guessed a mechanical pizzeria would spit out soggy slices of microwaved pie, think again. Let's Pizza machines make the crust from scratch, covers it with toppings of your choice, then bakes the whole shebang in an infrared oven — all in about three minutes for a cost of $6-7 U.S.
Is this the vending machine they have in heaven's waiting room?
For Sale: Budweiser Beer
Country: United States
Machines selling cans of brew have blessed beer drinkers in Japan and Germany for years. So it was about time the vending concept of the gods landed on U.S. soil. Meet Budweiser's self-service BeerBox, which is gradually being rolled out to concert/sports venues and festival grounds around the country.
No longer will you miss three innings of a ballgame while waiting in an epic line at the concession stand. Step right up to this heaven-sent contraption, pay with a credit card, Google Wallet or Apple Pay, and boom, out pops a 25-ounce can of cold gold.
Okay, we hear ya'. It ain’t craft beer. But hey, time-pressed beggars can't be choosers.
For Sale: Marijuana
Country: United States, Canada
Catering to paranoid stoners bent on avoiding human contact, as well as other customers, these mechanized dealers sling bags of herb and pre-rolled joints without you having to face the annoying "budtender" at the local weed shop.
Companies such as GreenStop, Grasshopper Kiosks and Greenbox Robotics have rolled out their machines to cannabis dispensaries in marijuana-legal states like Washington, Colorado and California. But so far reception has been mixed, with buyers complaining the units are fraught with technical glitches.
For Sale: Live Crabs
Stale Snickers bars and Cheetos are for amateurs. In China, the vending-machine gourmand goes for live "hairy crabs" accompanied by a side of vinegar and two bags of ginger tea.
The machine, introduced in 2010, stocks the crustacean delicacies in edible "Crab Villa" boxes at a chilly 41 degrees to preserve their life in a state of dormancy (they're known as "sleeping crabs"). Drop coinage in the slot, eat the quivering crab meat on the spot, or if you're an aristocrat, cart it home to plop in a boiling pot.
Sound a bit cruel? Sure, but we're not here to judge. Only to marvel at people in the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu popping the equivalent of $3.50 U.S. for a crab the contraption guarantees will not be dispensed dead — or you get three live ones for free. Now there's a deal you can't beat with a crab mallet.
For Sale: Live Fishing Bait
Country: United States
It's fishing time! You've packed the poles, tackle box and most precious cargo of all, a case of beer. But wait, you forgot bait. Lucky for anglers, a handful of companies like PA Live Bait Vending and Bait N Go are here to save the day with 24/7 machines meeting the pre-dawn need for live worms, crayfish and $2.50-per-dozen minnows.