City Bites

Fresh-made food from (gasp!) a vending machine!

Chocolate bars, chips, and the odd “plastic” sandwich… Vending machines aren’t a go-to dispenser for anyone remotely committed to healthy eating. But that’s set to change, according to LUNCH owner Tim Van Dyke.

Since opening LUNCH six years ago, Van Dyke has gathered a healthy following for his company’s daily soups, salads, and sandwiches, with eight stand-alone restaurants and food-court locations on both sides of the river, as well as a catering operation.

Now, he’s keen to spearhead a vending-machine revolution. The first prototype LUNCHBOX (saw that name coming, didn’t you?) vending machine was plugged in last week at the Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards.

 Photo: John Finnigan Lin
Photo: John Finnigan Lin

City Bites Insider caught up with the fresh-food evangelist to ask why he’s so hyped about a common vending machine.

So when did you get this prototype vending machine up and running?

Just now! We’re still working out a few kinks, but it’s stocked and ready to go.

Why set up your first vending machine here at the Innovation Centre? And why is it right in your actual LUNCH café? Isn’t that counterproductive?

Good questions. Because it’s a prototype, we’re working with people here at the Innovation Centre to see how we can make our vending machine even more user-friendly — different payment options and other ideas. And because this place is full of tech start-ups, we know people will be working crazy hours. When the café closes for the day, you can still get a healthy snack or meal after hours.

Okay, so what’s it stocked with?

There are five rows. The two middle rows hold 24 fresh sandwiches and 18 salads. We’ve also got some Seed to Sausage charcuterie. The top two rows hold snacks — Kettle brand chips and energy bars. And the bottom row has drinks — Buchipop kombucha, Harvey & Vern’s soda, and a couple of types of San Pellegrino.

 Photo: John Finnigan Lin
Photo: John Finnigan Lin

Sounds tasty. How often will you restock?

A couple of times a day. The machine is actually set up so we can check remotely to see what needs to be restocked. We should get a good idea pretty quickly about what sells.

I noticed that the second you posted a picture of LUNCHBOX on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, CHEO CEO Alex Munter took an interest.

I know. Isn’t that amazing? I’ve already received requests for more information about our vending machines from about a dozen organizations, including CHEO and the Heart Institute. Everyone knows the jokes about hospital cafeterias, so it would be incredible to be able to set up vending machines to dispense fresh sandwiches and salads. I’ve also had calls from condo developers and universities.

 Photo: John Finnigan Lin
Photo: John Finnigan Lin

But you’re not getting ahead of yourself?

Trying not to. So far this is our first machine, though I have plans for three more in the next three months or so.

So no LUNCHBOX machines going into the hospitals next week?

Not that fast! But I’d love to make it happen.

If it takes off, do you worry that LUNCHBOX will hurt your bricks and mortar cafes?

Not at all. If anything, LUNCHBOX complements our other businesses. It’s almost like a billboard — a great way to market ourselves to people and have them try our “brand.”

What is your biggest challenge with the whole vending machine concept?

The messaging. It’s got to be clear to people that this is not a gimmick. I wholeheartedly believe in using vending machines as a way to deliver fresh food. It’s going to be a challenge to convince people that food coming out of a machine is fresh.

LUNCH owner Tim Van Dyke at the Cafe inside the Innovation Centre at Bayview.  Photo: John Finnigan Lin
LUNCH owner Tim Van Dyke at the Cafe inside the Innovation Centre at Bayview. Photo: John Finnigan Lin

And while we have your attention, a word or two about the LUNCH cafe at the Innovation Centre.

It has been open since late November and anyone can stop in for a sandwich, salad, or a treat. We’ve got an amazing barista here serving Equator coffee. The plan is to set up a steam tray in the near future — maybe serve a curry or pasta or chilli — things we’re making that day for our catering operations.

Final thoughts?

Just that I’m so privileged to get to do this. We’re not reinventing the wheel here — vending machines have been around forever. But it is amazing to set up in this building full of start-ups, and experiment a bit with the machine and the product.