World's Strangest Vending Machines
If you find yourself in Milan’s Malpensa airport—or a few other places around Italy—you can watch as your dough is kneaded, your desired toppings doled out, and your pizza bakes…all in just under three minutes. But if you’re hoping to watch a real Italian pie guy work his magic, you’ll have to go somewhere else—this pizza’s made entirely inside a vending machine.
For travelers, a vending machine can be a welcome sight. Perhaps it’s just for a quick snack when the rest of the airport is closed. Or, overseas, an easy transaction without any language hurdles. But these days, the vending machine is diversifying. Now travelers can find all sorts of things inside these contraptions—items that range from the practical to the absurd.
The world’s first vending machine apparently dates back to the first century, when Hero of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician, devised a coin-operated mechanism that would dispense holy water. Perhaps because that was such a tough act to follow, vending machines didn’t really evolve again until the 19th century, when Industrial Age machines started selling postcards or gum.
Today, vending machines tend to be more prevalent—and therefore more exotic—in Europe and Asia, says Michael Provost, president of vending machine company Wurlitzer Vending Machines. A big reason: they have more mass transit. “Vending machines are on the train platforms everywhere—they’re open for 24 hours and don’t need employees.”
At the intersection of technology and quirkiness, Japan is the hands-down leader, with all sorts of items offered for automated sale. “Japan has the highest vending machine density in the world—about one per 23 people,” says Christopher Salyers, author of Vending Machines: Coined Consumerism. “Machines sell liquor, noodles, underwear, fresh meat, to name but a few,” he says. “And why not?”
The U.S. is making its own strides, too. At Miami’s Mondrian South Beach Hotel, you can use the vending machine in the lobby to buy anything from a toothbrush to gold-plated handcuffs(!), or even to rent a Cadillac convertible. And taking a cue, perhaps, from the Japanese, more than 100 bars and restaurants in the U.S. now carry the Maine Lobster Game. For a mere $3, you get 15 seconds to try to catch a live lobster with a claw on a crane. It’s a big hit with customers, says Chris Keslinger, president of Vending Extreme. “We have had machines bring in over $2,000 in one week.” If you win, just hope the bartender has a pot of boiling water handy.
And if you end up taking your live lobster home in a bag? People will likely still pony up $3. “We love vending machines because their very nature will always remain consistent,” says Salyers. “Some of us would prefer having access to goods 24 hours a day, devoid of human interaction or adult supervision.”
“Change is inevitable,” he says, quoting the aphorism. “Except from a vending machine.”
Gold Bars: Abu Dhabi, Frankfurt, Bergamo, and Moscow Airports
In case the dollar or euro fails during your flight home, you can always shore up your assets by picking up a few gold bars at a Gold to Go vending machine, debuting in the above airports in May 2010 after a successful 2009 test run at Frankfurt. You can also buy South African Krugerrands, Canadian maple-leaf coins, or even a $100, one-ounce Australian Kangaroo coin.
Price: They fluctuate, supposedly pegged to real-time prices. We were quoted $50 for a one-gram gold bar, complete with fancy gift box. Turns out you could do a little better, price-wise, on eBay, but as airport gifts go, a gold bar still beats another dumb T-shirt.
Raw Eggs, Japan and California
In a country that sells bags of rice out of vending machines, it’s perhaps no surprise that you might find bags of fresh eggs inside vending machines along the side of the road, set up by local farmers. But you need not go all the way to Japan for fresh eggs from a machine. At Glaum Egg Ranch, outside Santa Cruz, $3 gets you 24 cage-free-chicken eggs, accompanied by a “live show” performed by dolled-up stuffed chickens (as in Beanie Babies, not former egg layers).
Gold Handcuffs, Miami’s Mondrian SouthBeach Hotel
Hotel gift shops—so passé. At this chic South Beach hotel, one full wall of the lobby is taken up by the Semi-Automatic, an enticingly mod, purple vending machine. Some go-to items: a feather vest ($400), a $28 T-shirt emblazoned with the word recession, or, our favorite, the 24-karat-gold handcuffs ($350). You can even buy a nearby condo, or rent a 1953 Cadillac DeVille convertible.
Price: Ranges from $10 to $1.2 million. For the super-high-end items—say, buying a car or condo—you pay a deposit, which you lose if you later opt out.
Live Bait, Across the U.S.
Finally, a way to buy leeches at 2 a.m. Placed in fishing-friendly locales across the U.S.—with several in Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, and Illinois—these 24-hour machines have filled a gap left by bait and tackle shops that went under due to competition from big-box stores. PA Live Bait Vending owner Gary Harsel says that the machines’ best seller is probably the dozen night crawlers, but some machines also offer live minnows, crayfish, bloodworms, and leeches. They also carry non-living items such as hooks, bobbers, sinkers, motor oil for boats, and, of course, frosty beverages. (Good news: unbought bait doesn’t stay in the machine longer than a week.)
Price: $3 for a dozen night crawlers.
Bicycles, the Netherlands
In this pedal-happy nation, it’s actually surprising that we hadn’t seen bicycle vending machines before now. The new Bikedispenser machines—currently found at railway stations in Arnhem and Nijmegen and coming soon to Delft, Duiven, and a dozen more locations by 2011—rent out bicycles for up to 20 hours. Just bring them back to the same station.
Price: About $16 your first time, then about $4 for each rental during the following 12 months.
One downside of a pedestrian-friendly city: being out and about in the wrong shoes. Asics has a roving vending machine—previously in London’s Carnaby Square but now in Liverpool—that sells its popular Onitsuka Tiger “trainers” (as the Brits call sneakers) for about $75 a pair. Seeing as it’s in a store with clerks nearby—who are, for the record, also selling shoes—this one seems more novelty than function. If it’s after 5 p.m., though, look for a Rollasole. Found mostly in nightclubs (such as Oceana), these machines offer comfy-but-flashy flats for ladies who have had it with dancing in stilettos. For just a few quid ($10 for Yanks), you can choose among small, medium, and large, in the colors Back to Black or Hi Ho Silver. The machines are headed to U.K. train stations and airports this summer, as well as nightclubs in New York, L.A., and Vegas.
With cigarette machines on the outs, A Novel Idea at least provides an idle diversion that won’t alienate the person sitting next to you at the airport. Found in airports (such as Heathrow) and hotels (such as Radisson Blu at London’s Stansted), the machines offer a variety of titles—best-selling authors such as Maeve Binchy and James Patterson, but also puzzle books and kids’ titles. Machines are also coming to Australia and Asia.
Price: About $10 each.
Fresh Bread, Belgium
A nation of carbo-loaders: there are more than 7,000 fresh-bread vending machines scattered around Belgium, sitting near boulangeries that stock them with the same baguettes and sliced loaves you’ll find inside. Think the French look down on this? They can’t—they have these machines, too.
Price: About $4.
Prayer Candles, Little Havana, Miami
At St. Michael the Archangel in Miami’s Little Havana, you can light prayer candles 24 hours a day in the church’s grotto. It made sense for the church to install a vending machine that offers round-the-clock prayer votives. (One priest does admit that the machine suffers when the Miami rain blows “sideways.”) You can also find such machines at Barcelona Cathedral.
Toilet Paper, Japan
Of all the great things that are free in this world, toilet paper is sometimes not one of them. In the rare chance it isn't provided in Japan's public restrooms, you can readily find these little machines selling TP, presented in small packets not unlike facial tissue at convenience stores.
Price: About $1.
Wine by the Liter, France
In the U.S., shoppers can fill their jugs with purified water. But in a few French supermarkets, you can fill up with red, white, or rosé wine. Bring your re-sealable bottle of choice—then pay by the liter at the cash register.
Price: About $2/liter.
Custom-Mixed Ice Cream, New England
Who wants to wait while some high school kid lazily mixes candy into a few scoops of mocha ice cream. MooBella machines―found at places such as Boston’s Museum of Science—offer 12 flavors and three “mix-in” options (M&Ms, chocolate chips, cookies), scooped and mixed in 40 seconds. Flavors range from vanilla to cake batter and white chocolate raspberry.
Price: About $3.
Alcohol has been the Achilles’ heel of the vending machine industry: a machine that can reliably check IDs has bedeviled manufacturers, and as a result such machines have become more scarce, even in vending-loving Japan. But in the Czech Republic, where the drinking age is 18, Pilsner Urquell has developed a machine that can scan your ID (even a U.S. passport) before issuing you a cold can of pilsner. They’re found at the Pilsner Urquell brewery tour in Pilsen, hostels, sports venues, and even dorms. The most popular variety of beer, whose logo likely doesn’t make it onto many T-shirts: Velkopopovicky Kozel Light.
Price: About $1.50.
If it’s so easy to lose an umbrella, why shouldn’t it be easy to find another one? Umbrella vending machines sit outside train stations. And they’re a bargain—especially for something you’ll lose next week.
Price: About $5.
To offer convenience to shoppers, the Keystone State is now selling wine through state-run vending machines located at a few Giant and Wegmans supermarkets. First you must scan your ID and blow into a Breathalyzer. A state employee—watching remotely through a camera—checks your test results and identification, then approves the transaction. Or doesn't.
Fresh Vegetables, Japan
Food doesn’t have to be plastic-wrapped, vacuum-sealed, or emblazoned with a Hello Kitty logo to be at home in a Japanese vending machine. Modern-minded local farmers now offer cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, mushrooms, and more in machines near transit centers. And don't worry about wilting: some machines are refreshed five or more times each day.
Price: About $2-4.
Cell Phone Charging, Seattle
Forgot your phone charger on your trip? Worry not: if you’re in the right place, you don't have to buy a new charger—and getting your phone juiced up can even be a pleasant diversion. At Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport, you can get your phone charged at a kiosk in the baggage claim. International cousins of the machine even have TV screens to entertain you for the 20 or so minutes it takes to get your phone back in action.
Good Luck Charms, Japan
It’s like a slot machine for good vibes. Outside temples and shrines in Kyoto, Chiba or Nara, you can insert about 100 yen and get a pouch containing your fortune—ranging from a Great Blessing to a Curse.
Price: About a buck.
Pecan Pie, Bastrop, TX
Who hasn’t wanted a pecan pie at midnight and cursed those blasted bakers for keeping bankers’ hours? At Berdoll Pecan Farm, demand for after-hours pecan pies became so great that they set up a machine outside the store. Want it à la mode? You’re on your own.
Hair Straighteners and iPods, U.S.
There’s nothing like sitting in the airport for a few hours to make you realize how many electronic gadgets are missing from your life. Best Buy comes to the rescue with vending machines in 25 airports and resorts across the U.S. The airport models offer on-the-go gadgets such as headphones, iPods, digital cameras and video games, while the hotel locations have disaster-averting essentials such as hair straighteners.
Price: Same as regular retail prices at Best Buy or BestBuy.com.
Mark Twain Pepsi Machine, Hannibal, MO
Would Mark Twain want his picture plastered on Pepsi machines? That may be for the literati to decide as Mr. Clemens watches you buy a Diet Pepsi in his hometown. “It looked a little nicer for the historical district than just having big logos,” a tourist board spokesperson explains. Sadly, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer commemorative bottles are not stocked within.