The appeal of a vending machine is that it delivers food you can eat on the spot, like peanut M&M's, potato chips, Oreos, or soda. Newer innovations such as the cupcake ATM and the salad-stocked Farmer's Fridge check that box, too.
Most people don't consider raw steak to be ready-to-eat, unless they're following an extreme cave man diet.
But Joshua Applestone, founder of Applestone Meat Co., sees the future in vending machines filled with strip steaks, pork chops, and Italian sausage. He's installed four of them at his four-year-old location in Stone Ridge, in Ulster County, N.Y., near the trendy town of Woodstock. Each is filled with a different type of protein: beef, pork, lamb, and ground meat and sausage. He has to restock the machines constantly to keep up with demand. Later this year, Applestone is expanding to Hudson where the store will have at least seven machines. By early next year the company will open in Scarsdale, where he's planning for 10 machines, and later in 2019 he'll open in Manhattan, with possibly even more.
Accessibility is key to this unlikely success; customers don't have to get to the butcher shop by 7 p.m. or buy questionable leftover product from a late-night market. "We're not in the 1950s anymore, where everyone works 9 to 5 and eats at the same time every night," Applestone says of 24/7 accessibility to meat. "Life is chaotic. At best."
The quality of his product helps assuage concerns that might be associated with pulling a $21.99 bone-in rib-eye out of a vending machine. Before he started his namesake company, Applestone co-founded Fleishers Craft Butchery, where he helped establish the cult of whole-animal butchery that gained acclaim in such places as Brooklyn. He sold the company in 2013.
When Applestone Meat opened, it was as a processing facility for farmers; there was no retail component. That represented a problem for a town like Stone Ridge, where locals were aware of the quality of meat inside the building.
"People knew me from Fleishers and were always knocking on the door, asking if I could sell meat directly to them," Applestone says.
Initially, it was just a two-person operation—Applestone and Chief Operating Officer Samantha Gloffke—so he considered ways to serve customers in the face of such limited staffing. It wasn't long before Applestone, who'd been thinking about alternative retail models for a while, hit on an unexpected source of inspiration.
"I remembered Horn & Hardart [the '50s automated luncheonette, whose last New York outpost closed in 1991]. There were very few people providing nonstop food," he says. "I put two and two together."
To begin, Applestone rigged up the kind of refrigerated, industrial carousel machine found in schools and prisons—he added little more than credit card technology. "We used a model that was basically a sandwich machine that would be the least intimidating to see if this concept had legs." Intimidating it is not: Customers use buttons to rotate the carousel and view the packaged meat, then swipe their credit card and pull on the corresponding clear door, which opens once the payment is processed.
Now Applestone is developing custom-made machines that will be ready by next year. The current machines carry an average of 150 items; the new ones, which cost about $30,000 each, will hold as many as 1,000. "The next version will make it a smoother, more intuitive process," he says. "This is going to be like getting your first iPhone." His goal is eventually to establish them in every city; he also sees them as a way of combating food deserts. (Still, one concern Applestone has about installing machines in places like Manhattan is the potential need for security guards.)
The 24/7 machines in Stone Ridge now represent 70 percent of Applestone's sales and require restocking several times a day. Applestone notes that he'll allow the meat to stay in the refrigerated case—six days for ground beef, seven for steak—in what could be considered a few days of extra aging time. No one has reported getting sick from the vending machine meat.
Applestone estimates that the Stone Ridge machines sell about 3,000 pounds of meat per week. He says sales reach five figures weekly but declines to be more specific.
Another major meat purveyor, Pat LaFrieda Meat Co., is cautiously interested. "Meat vending machines could be cool in the right element, and as long as our brand and freshness stay intact," says Mark Pastore, LaFrieda's president. "After all, in the world we live in now, anything is possible. And millennials love quick and easy."