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The Baltimore Sun American Dreamer
By - Linell Smith
Published December 28, 2003
Credit: Sun photo by Christopher T. Assaf

..In 2003, Leon Leykin traveled two patents closer to securing his version of the American Dream: Revolutionizing the fast-food industry with freshly cooked hot dogs from a vending machine he has spent years designing.

In a line of vending machines, Leon's machine is a colorful standout: Mustard yellow with photos of giant hotdogs. It has more than 350 parts, most too complicated to explain. The groundbreaking nature of this machine, though, is simple: It will prepare and serve a hot dog in less than a minute.

Leon's machine can use any brand of hot dog (or sausage, turkey dog or tube hamburger) that a vending machine operator desires to stock. The hot dog is stored in a refrigerated section of the machine, then cooked with a microwave and infrared process patented this year.

While each hot dog is cooking, the machine removes a bun from its individually sealed pouch - another patented process - and warms it in a second oven. Meanwhile, a window in the machine allows customers to watch this dramatic action and its climax - the pairing of bun and dog - before receiving it, piping hot, with a choice of condiments.

The notion of a machine dispensing the all-American meal may seem simple. But anyone who's tried to cook a hot dog in a microwave can list the difficulties. They only multiply if you add a bun to the equation.

In fact, Leon's most important inspiration, observers say, was to separate hotdog from bun, storing and preparing each separately.

"I think of the hot dog as a very delicate food," he says in his accented English. "To make a hot dog uniformly cooked is a very big challenge. But if you tell me something's impossible, I'm going to sleep at night thinking how to do it."

Leon's hot dog machine was the talk of 2003's National Automatic Merchandising Association's annual show. Although many "hot choice" vending machines heat up previously prepared foods such as pizza, a machine that actually "cooks" food remains a novelty.

"I think it has a real future," says Larry Eils, NAMA's senior director of technical services. "I was quite surprised and amazed when I first saw it.

He knew the machines

Even more amazing, however, is the 55-year-old inventor himself.

Leon Leykin spent the first half of his life in the former Soviet Union, navigating through its system-wide anti-Semitism. When he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1988, he was able to bring with him only his degree in electrical engineering - and an intimate knowledge of vending machines.

After years of working for the country's largest vending machine developer, Leon knew how to build machines that dispensed cooking oils, and ones that sold beer. He worked on ticket machines and machines that packaged fruits and vegetables. He helped design and service machines, and he knew how to fix them.

"As long as I can remember, we would go from one vending machine to another," his daughter Victoria recalls. "My dad would go all over Russia. He was always coming up with ways to better the machines, to keep them from breaking down as often. He was always improving and re-engineering.

"Then, when we first lived in Rockville, my dad subdivided my parents' bedroom and turned half of it into his office. That's where he started the hot dog machine and built his first prototype."

'A machine with real food'

One evening between classes, Leon headed to the cafeteria vending machines for something to eat. It was a life-changing experience.

"I looked for snack machine and find only sweet stuff," he recalls. "I was sick to my stomach. Why is there not a machine with real food? Why not a machine that sells hot dogs? Everyone likes hot dogs." Leon savors the memory of the first picnic he ever attended, a festive and friendly event with hamburgers and hot dogs that seemed to symbolize America. That night at school, he began thinking about developing a new hot dog delivery system. Over the next few years, along with working and studying for his citizenship exam, Leon came up with a prototype. He worked out the kinks. And came up with another.

Then the inventor went to Don Spero, the entrepreneur who had founded Fusion Systems and was beginning to help other fledgling entrepreneurs. (Spero now heads the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at University of Maryland's Robert H.Smith School of Business.)

Spero knew Leon as a gifted engineer and trusted he could build a great machine. But had he absorbed anything about American business?

"I asked him, 'What about the pricing structure, the distribution side? What's the size of the market?'" Spero says. "Leon said, 'I don't know how to build a business, I know how to do this machine."

Before anyone would invest in it, Spero told him, Leon would have to devise a business plan. He suggested where the inventor might start to educate himself,and told him to get back in touch when he had a strategy.

"It took me a year to get the answers," Leon says. "With help from my daughter Victoria, who study accounting and computers in college, I create a good business plan. Then I call him up and say 'Don, I answer all your questions.'He was surprised and invite me again to his home."

It was 1997. Spero became an "angel" investor and helped find others,like businessman John Hechinger, to fund the machine's development. Leon's company became LHD Vending Inc., short for Leon's Hot Dogs.

By 2000, Leon began testing the market. He put machines in a mail-distribution center in Baltimore, a film-processing plant in Beltsville and at Lincoln Technical Institute in Columbia. To date, he has sold 30,000 hot dogs. The machine in Columbia sells 45 or 50 a day.

Now he is gearing up for the demands of a hungry nation. He has built his first 10 commercial machines at his headquarters in Owings Mills and is negotiating with manufacturers to assemble the others.

How much for a tasty LHD hot dog?

Leon's research shows people will pay from $1.50 to $2.50 for a vending machine dog. But don't worry about having enough quarters - he can also modify his machine to accept credit cards. Now that's all-American.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun