Rise of the Machines: The Cupcake ATM as the Newest Food Service Innovation

March 6, 2012
4 min read

Growing up in the 1980s, watching Hanna-Barbera’s The Jetsons was a staple of my Saturday morning cartoon-watching agenda. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the exploits of this futuristic family – and its spunky robot maid Rosey – looking forward to the day (not much beyond Y2K) that I too could speed my way through the Milky Way in a bubble top car. Even cooler, though, was the fact that reaching the future meant we’d no longer have to put any effort into the tedious daily cooking and grooming tasks that took too much time away from work and play. If life was going to be like what the Jetsons would have us believe, our dinners would be made, wardrobe selected, and hair done with one touch of a “Food-A-Rac” button and a single pass through a computer-operated clothes machine. At the time, these things represented blissful innovation. Seeing something like this in practice now – as we increasingly become a society overrun by machines – I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

This week (March 9, 2012) gourmet cupcake chain Sprinkles is set to unveil its latest and greatest in food service technology – the “cupcake ATM.” Consumers will soon be able to satisfy their sweet tooth at all hours of the day and night by visiting up to 10 ATM locations – starting with one at the original Sprinkles in Beverly Hills – getting instantaneous, street-level access to the most popular cupcake varieties (up to 600 in one machine) for just 50 cents more than the in-store price. At first, the concept sounds like a good one, because it’s right in line with what Americans increasingly want fast, technology-provided services that allow them to surpass the “hassle” of in-store or in-restaurant visits where the “threat” of human interaction could slow them down. For example, Mintel’s American Lifestyles–U.S., January 2012, shows that the number of consumers who reported spending more money on mobile phones increased from 2008-2011 by 6% – more than any other spending category measured. But, at what point might we realize that a vended life gone too far may just encourage laziness and, worse yet, impede basic social interaction?

Vending food service innovation has a global reach

The Cupcake ATM is the most recent example of product developments fostering our machine dependency – something that has grown to international proportions. In Holland, consumers can find vending machines with fast food, and Australia is “famous” for its French fry vending machines. Japan – perhaps the biggest culprit of them all – has vending machines housing everything from eggs and sneakers to toilet paper, flowers, and live lobsters. Mintel’s Inspire explores this very phenomenon in its trend, Cool Vending. If done right, the growth of vending machine retail could have positive implications. Retailers could use them to sell more nutritious snack foods, for example, to the 65% of consumers–up from 60% in 2008 – who say that they are eating healthier (also in our American Lifestyles report). But, when you consider that these machines are being used as a substitute for the suddenly too slow fast food restaurants, or a quick dispenser for consumers’ next lobster dinner, these machines – and the newest cupcake ATM – hardly seem to fit this bill.

What’s next in vending food service innovation?

Only time will tell of the success of “cool vending” like the cupcake ATM, and whether sales really trump a quick, and cheaper, trip into the retail outlets to which they’re attached. They could indeed be the solution when consumers are in a pinch and have no other means of resolving a late night baked goods emergency. I’d hope, though, that in the process we don’t forget the occasional benefits of taking a minute to stop, smell the dough, and actually taste the pastries.

ggrabowski ggrabowski
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