The Fastest Fast Food Of All

As more people with less time on their hands turn to vending machines for quick nourishment, the companies that stock the glass-enclosed delis are turned to fast food giants for their supplies.

Canteen Vending Services, the vending industry leader, is trying to create a tastier experience and improve the industry's image by stocking nationally known restaurant brands in its fresh food machines.

Canteen has struck deals to stock Nathan's hot dogs, Blimpie's sandwiches, Hardee's biscuits and burgers and Red Baron pizza along with its own private-label brands of sandwiches.

While some items are designed to be eaten as is from the refrigerated machines, others have to be heated in a microwave oven.

Anthony Gagliardi, president of Canteen, called it the most ambitious effort to date by any vending machine operator to offer restaurant brands in food kiosks.

"There is a clear consumer desire for brands in vending, but there has never been a focus on brands by the vending operators," he explained.

Gagliardi figures the restaurant brands will boost business for Canteen and improve consumer perceptions of food sold through vending machines in the process.

According to Gagliardi, tests over the past year in North Carolina and California showed that vending machine sales rose 20 percent when restaurant brands were offered.

Officials for the brands say vending machines give them a new way to distribute products, reach new customers and boost brand awareness. Some plan to include coupons with their vending food to get people into their stores.

"They are the masters of this segment of the business," said Jerry Sbarro, a vice president and member of the founding family of the Italian restaurant chain Sbarro Inc. It is still deciding whether it will supply its pasta, salads, pizza or something else for the Canteen machines.

But marketing experts say there are huge risks in entrusting a revered fresh food brand to a vending machine operator.

"The consumer perception of vending machine products is poor at best," said Jon Kramer, president of the marketing consultancy J. Brown/LMC Group. "I'd be looking twice at this if I were a brand marketer."

Indeed, spokespeople for the three big fast-food chains McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's said they have no plans to sell via vending machines.

Denny Lynch, a spokesman for the Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's chain, said selling its hamburgers, chicken sandwiches or pitas via a vending machine "doesn't seem to be a compatible idea since we like to serve freshly made products."

Charles Nicholas, a spokesman for Burger King Corp. in Miami, echoed those concerns: "From a quality standpoint, our product wouldn't be best served through a vending machine."

Canteen, a North Carolina-based unit of Britain's Compass Group, has been in the business for 70 years and has 150,000 food and beverage vending machines in the UniteStates. The company operates eight kitchens nationwide where it makes its own food for vending.

Under Canteen's exclusive multi-year deals with restaurant brands, the brand owners can supply the products themselves or have Canteen make them to specifications.

The food is often developed specifically for sale via vending machine and is not exactly like that sold in restaurants.

Canteen and Nathan's, for example, developed a hot dog that would be heated in a microwave oven rather than grilled at a Nathan's restaurant. The hot dog bun was reformulated so it would be neither too hard nor too soft after being microwaved.

"Obviously the best place to get our hot dog is in our stores," said Joseph Adams, director of business development for Nathan's Famous, which has 200 stores and sells through 800 other outlets in 28 states.

But he said the vending machine frank tastes "very, very close" to the restaurant version. "People will definitely know it is a Nathan's hot dog," he said.

But with food and beverage vending sales estimated at more than $22 billion last year, someone must be looking for a familiar bite to eat.