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By Donna De Marco
Published October 18, 2003

Forget about pizza in 30 minutes or less. Try getting one in 90 seconds from a vending machine.

For $5, a 9-inch pizza is toasted inside a vending machine and served hot and crispy. It's one of the latest innovations in the vending machine industry, which no longer serves up just generic snacks and 12-ounce soda cans.

Instead, vending machines have evolved into portable cafeterias and mini convenience stores carrying everything from frozen meals, flavored milk and suntan lotion to brand-name snacks, crunchy french fries and grilled hot dogs.

"It's amazing the number of products that are in vending machines today," said Dan Mathews, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the National Automatic Merchandising Association, the trade group for the vending industry.

Last year, the industry generated $23.1 billion in sales, according to the Automatic Merchandiser State of the Vending Industry Report. Vending machines, which once sat in the halls of manufacturing plants and warehouses, are now just about everywhere - from offices, prisons and hospitals, to bars, colleges and street corners. The industry has even added more healthy snacks like baked potato chips and low-fat granola bars to meet the nutritional requirements of schools.

About 6 million vending machines are in the United States. They have changed over the years from non-descriptive machines to branded devices with high-tech features that can accept debit and credit cards.

Officials say the new equipment and extensive product offerings are answering the demands of the on-the-go consumer who is looking for fast meal and snack alternatives.

"Our business is one of convenience," Mr. Mathews said. "It's24/7 and unattended."

It's also an industry that mirrors the economy and remains in a slump when unemployment is high.

"A big part of our growth is based on people at work," Mr. Mathews said. "If people aren't working, they're not putting their coins in the machines."

Sales dropped about 5 percent each year since 2000, according to the industry report.

But despite the last few sluggish years, industry officials are optimistic that new contraptions, extended product lines and unique locations will help the industry.

Vending's top players gathered this week in Washington at the association's annual expo, which ends today. The trade show floor is filled with the latest products and high-tech machines, including the "Incredible Meal & Ice Cream Machine" - a vending machine by New Jersey-based Fastcorp that uses a robotic vacuum to select the product out of a freezer.

U-Select-It, a manufacturer in Iowa, showcased its "electronic eyes" technology that tells the machine if a product has been successfully dispensed. If not, the machine will try again or return the money to the customer.

Just steps away, hot dogs are grilled in 45 seconds and served on a warm bun. The machine, developed by LHD Vending of Owings Mills, Md., has a separate compartment for the buns. Condiments are stored at the front of the machine.

"It's a cafeteria that doesn't need to be manned by anyone," said VictoriaLeykin, chief financial officer of LHD Vending.

The flashy hot dog grill made its national debut at the show Thursday.

Unlike the hot dog machine, 2,000 units of the fully automated pizza vending machine already are operating in Europe, said Paul Battaini of Wonder Pizza USA, the American subsidiary of parent Wonder Pizza Italy.

The company's first U.S. college, Brown University, just signed on for 12 to 20 units beginning in 2004, Mr. Battaini said.

"This machine will be prominent in all social activity," Mr. Battaini said. Wonder Pizza's machines have been on the market for about a year.

"Consumers' tastes change by generation," Mr. Mathews said. "The industry is keeping up with that."