C&S Vending blends cutting-edge technology with exceptional customer service

July 7, 2023
California-based C&S Vending draws from its strong 30-year foundation, while harnessing the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley.

C&S Vending is a one-stop shop for vending, micro market, pantry, office coffee and water service. Based in San Jose, C&S Vending was founded over 30 years ago by Chuck Owen. His son, Andy Owen, general manager, leads the company today and draws from the strong foundation his father built, while harnessing the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley.

“My father was doing vending part-time,” Andy Owen reflected. “He was also a boat and car salesman, so three jobs at the same time. He ended up realizing that the vending route had a lot of potential, so he left the other two jobs to work on vending full-time.”

Dad always knows best

Upon graduating college in 2006, Andy Owen wasn’t sure which direction to go. From door-to-door sales to working as a bouncer, he struggled to find something that really stuck. One day, his father called and asked him if he could take over a route for a couple of weeks while an employee was on vacation. He took on the route and stayed around to fill in wherever his father needed the help. His responsibilities gradually expanded from delving into technician work to general warehouse duties. “I kind of was doing everything,” he recalls.

When Owen arrived, C&S only offered vending and minimal pantry and office coffee service. The company was also entirely analogue, “aside from a few Excel spreadsheets,” he joked. “My main goal was to get the company set up on computers, so we weren’t stuck in the money room counting all of the cash by hand.”

Owen implemented Vending Essentials, a somewhat rudimentary VMS software. “It basically just gave meter readings on all of the machines. That was about all it did,” Owen recalled. With the not-so-cutting-edge software in place, he soon discovered that one of C&S Vending’s employees had been stealing products and putting them in a storage unit. That moment ignited Owen’s passion for the business. “I could really change things,” he realized. “I could make a difference.”

The right man for the job

When C&S Vending’s general manager left in 2008, Owen stepped up to the task – which isn’t to say he was fully prepared for the undertaking. “I was just thrown from the frying pan into the fire. It was complete chaos trying to learn everything,” the operator said.

Having worn all hats in the family business, from route runner to technician and now manager, he understood the ins-and-outs of every role, priming him to be a knowledgeable, fair and empathetic leader. “When I interview people, I tell them I’ve done everything within this company, so I know what is and what is not feasible,” Owen remarked. “When I structure routes, I know what people can actually accomplish. I will never give you 12 hours of work; I’m going to make sure you get eight hours of work every day.

Streamlining success with software

Owen got to work optimizing all facets of the operation. At the time, C&S was still running cash-only vending machines. As a part of his optimization plan, he sought to implement credit card readers, but he wanted to avoid financing the project until he was sure the technology could be seamlessly incorporated into the routes. In 2013, Owen came up with an outside-of-the-box solution to introduce Cantaloupe’s VMS. “I didn’t want to outlay the cash in order to see all of the benefits. So I asked Cantaloupe if I could demo their software on just one route and keep all of the machines offline,” he said. Cantaloupe offered him a 30-day free trial, which gave Owen plenty of time to restructure his routes for maximum efficiency and profitability. The operator was then able to slowly roll out the readers onto all of the machines.

According to Owen, the biggest benefit of integrating Cantaloupe’s VMS was planogramming and scheduling. The integrated documenting system saved the route runner an extra trip to complete the delivery, reducing time spent per stock by up to 40%. “Back then, you would have to go into the account, collect the cash, inventory the machine, go back to the truck, pick everything, and then go back in. Now, once you walk in, all you have to do is collect the money and stock the machines. Everything is done in one trip and in much less time. We also know and have a record of which products go where in the machines, allowing us to keep much better control of things remotely,” he said.

C&S continues to advance its technological capabilities to offer the most user-friendly experience for both its employees and its customers. For its customers, C&S has a QR code on all of its vending machines to easily submit reviews, request service and offer product ideas. The vending machines are equipped with contactless payment to make transactions as easy as possible.

The people want coffee!

Owen saw that C&S was leaving money on the table with its tunnel-vision focus on vending, so he started making the push for office coffee service (OCS). During Owen’s first few years with the company, C&S supplied a simple air pot and brewer setup.

The paradigm shift occurred in 2013 when Owen introduced the Colibri single-cup brewer, which prompted offices to open their doors for C&S. “It didn’t make a big difference with current sales, but a big difference as far as what we could go after for new business,” he said. “Now we were able to go out there and get different customers.”

Since then, the operator’s OCS progressed to include high-tech coffee and espresso machines. Its arsenal of coffee tech includes de Jong Duke’s Nio and Virtu, Nespresso machines and Bravilor’s Sego 12.

Offering premium coffee technologies has been instrumental to C&S’s customer retention. Whereas customers are quick to jump ship when using a standard coffee pot, the high-quality coffee machines are too beloved to let go. “When you get that revolving door, it’s messy for everyone. I like to keep customers for a long time,” Owen said.

Fueling innovation, one pantry at a time

C&S hit its stride in pantry service. Located in Silicon Valley’s largest city, C&S was well-positioned to cater to the ever-blossoming tech industry, where pantries are a must-have for startups and tech giants alike. “I’m guessing it started with people wanting to do something nice for their employees, and so they can work longer hours,” he hypothesized. “But in my opinion, that’s secondary in the thought process of these companies. The main reason companies want pantry service is employee retention. Employees are very highly sought after here, and they can just bounce from Google to Facebook, from here to there. So, if a company offers pantry service, and another company doesn’t, it’s going to be very difficult for that other company to bring people in and retain their current employees.”

Seeing the huge demand, Owen doubled down with the goal of becoming the premier pantry service in the Bay Area. In 2018, he hired Kurtis Bosacki, a pantry service expert with decades of experience in the industry. “With his experience, we were able to transform the way that we did pantry,” Owen said. “Now, we are able to offer our current and future customers a comprehensive, top-of-the-line service.” The operator’s pantry service quickly blossomed and, by 2019, represented 70% of its business.

Good ol’ reliable

When COVID-19 hit, C&S lost 90% of its pantry customers overnight. “I remember very well. It was around noon,” Owen recollected. “One of my employees came up and told me that the government had their meeting, and we were all getting locked down for two weeks inside.” Only one thing kept C&S’s head above water: vending. With vending machines placed in public spaces and essential businesses, C&S was able to stay afloat and ride out the COVID storm. “Vending is what saved us,” he emphasized. “If it weren’t for vending, we would have probably been out of business or just in very poor shape.”

C&S primarily operates snack machines, and Owen isn’t seeking to reinvent the wheel. “We run older AP vending machines and renovate them. Tear out the guts, new boards, new everything. I don’t see a real need to buy expensive new equipment when the older ones work perfectly fine,” he said. On the beverage side, C&S almost exclusively runs Coca-Cola machines.

A clean slate

By April 2020, C&S was forced to let go of all of its 22 employees. “I joke that I fired myself and my dad too,” Owen said. In the following months, he analyzed their previous roles and found redundancies and was able to better restructure the company. 

As COVID restrictions eased, Owen was able to rebuild the company from nearly zero. Since then, he has brought back employees deliberately and strategically. This gave him the opportunity to optimize all facets of C&S, including staff, logistics and technology. Today, the C&S team is 16 strong and is fully operational. “Before COVID, it was a little more chaotic,” he said. “We weren’t properly organized for growth. Structurally, we’re in a much better place. We’re much more ready to grow.”

Prior to the pandemic, C&S had separate routes for vending and pantry/OCS. With time on his hands, Owen re-trained his drivers to cover all facets of the business. In doing this, C&S was able to service its customers more frequently – and the customers loved it. The simple tweak killed two birds with one stone: Delivery routes became significantly more efficient, and the customer experience was elevated.

A not-so-small family business

Over the years, C&S has acquired a handful of small, typically one-man operations. When looking at a business to buy out, Owen ensures it is a strong strategic step forward. “Sometimes, we don’t even buy companies for their routes or customers,” he explained. “For example, we bought a company that was essentially just for equipment. They had an insane amount of equipment, something like 50 snack machines.”

Today, C&S Vending operates six routes, which cover 250 accounts. To continue growing, Owen ensures the company maintains its uncompromising dedication to customer service that allowed it to achieve success in the first place. “We hear from our customers all the time that many larger companies don’t even pick up the phone,” he said. “People call us, we pick up the phone. I’ll answer emails at midnight! It’s really that simple. That sets us apart.”

Despite Owen’s father being retired, C&S remains a true family business. “My daughter works here,” he said. “We have three employees who are all brothers, and one of their wives works here. We also have a father-son duo on staff. We have a very tight-knit group.”

Owen credits much of the operation’s consistency to its core team of employees. “As with all companies, there’s always one or two roles which are constantly in flux. But knowing that we have that core – basically half the company or more – that we can depend upon 100% makes a huge difference. It gives us those building blocks to expand on,” he said.

With so many close friends and family on the team, Owen genuinely looks forward to spending the day at the warehouse. “I get to hang out with my friends all day!” he declared. “There aren’t many people that wake up and say ‘Hey, I get to go to work every day.’ I consider that a huge win.”

Moving forward

To adjust to the altered workforce, Owen looks to expand C&S’s arsenal of micro markets. Continuous advancements in self-checkout technology and security make micro markets more feasible than ever before. “Micro markets are the smallest part of our business currently. As we continue to grow, they will be my area of focus,” he said.

COVID transformed the vending world immensely, and Owen thinks these changes are here to stay. “We’ve been dealing with the hybrid work model for almost three years at this point. We’re completely accustomed to that.”

With C&S Vending’s tight-knit operation and strong backbone of employees, the company is well-equipped to forge ahead for years to come. “Of course, it isn’t ideal if people don’t return to the office full-time, but we’re structured for it. We’re totally ready,” the operator concluded.


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