Fresh food accounts for 20 to 30 percent of today’s micro market sales. However, in this new vertical, the same old sandwiches and inexpensive salads from vending food carousels fall flat. Instead customers want gourmet and fresh, whether that’s sandwiches with lettuce or yogurt parfaits with diced fruit. Micro market operators are sourcing food from many local locations and rediscovering the positive revenues from this once dying vending segment.
Embrace the food business
“[Micro markets] are not something you toy with,” said Scott Halloran, co-owner of Trolley House Refreshments in Richmond, Va. “You don’t open up one or two. You either jump in with two feet and create efficiencies around it or just stay away from it.” Three years ago, Halloran decided to jump in and one of the most challenging efficiencies he had to create was centered on food procurement and transport. His vending operation never had a commissary, so his food experience was limited to branded food shipped frozen and thawed for the customers. That type of typical vending fare did well, but Trolley House Refreshments also started looking for a higher end, gourmet offering for its micro markets. “Our customers are demanding a fresh product,” Halloran said, “with lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise…and things that have a shelf life.” He spent more than nine months looking at local caterers and restaurants that could make a product that was the quality level he wanted. Once Halloran found it, at MG Foods out of Charlotte, N.C., he then had to make adjustments to his distribution philosophy, since his new gourmet fresh food had a 5 to 7 day shelf life as opposed to traditional vending food with a life of 14 to 21 days.
“For our markets we do a one week buy on food products and…we do a heavy fill on Monday before lunch time — everyone gets a fresh load of sandwiches in their markets,” said Halloran. During that Monday visit, drivers remove “out of date” products as well. As the market is serviced during the week, the food is back filled. Halloran also invested in a 10 by 20 walk-in cooler to house the fresh products in the warehouse as well as coolers for the vehicles. “When you’re dealing with salads and sandwiches with lettuce and tomato and all these different products, you fall into a temperature window of 36 to 42 degrees where you have to keep that product at all times,” said Halloran. He’s noticed if it gets too cold, the lettuce will freeze and ultimately wilt, and warm temperatures substantially shorten shelf life.
Sourcing food locally
Many micro market operators are sourcing food from local establishments instead of making it in commissaries. Joel Skidmore, owner of J&J Vending of Union City, Calif., has also had success purchasing fresh food for his micro markets from a professional foodservice provider. “We have a local foodservice person make food weekly,” said Skidmore. The food is delivered to his markets Mondays and Thursdays and is labeled under the J&J Company Kitchen brand. His best sellers aren’t even sandwiches. “We sell a lot of salads,” said Skidmore. The next most popular items are yogurt parfaits and fresh fruit. “It’s been unbelievable,” said Skidmore about the success of fresh food in the micro markets.
Supplying fresh food to micro markets has been a new line of business for Kitchen Fresh Foods (KF Foods), a third-party commissary located in Green Bay, Wis. Greg Hill, wholesale division manager at KF Foods, observes that the challenge for operators is finding just the right inventory for each market. “What we [received]were requests for premium deli-quality items,” said Hill. “Operators were looking for that $7 sandwich.”