What seemed like a little extra before, something to please people who feel like having a local cheese fondue and cannot wait till supermarkets reopen on Monday, might be seen differently in the light of the current global events. In the past years, few quirky vending machines appeared on Zurich’s streets: you might have already heard of the Trauerautomat or seen the Flowers vending machine at Kalkbreite (breaking news: another florist just installed one at Zürich HB!). But how about vending machines that actually sell real local comestibles, 24/7, literally on the street? Thanks to Swiss overall politeness and -not secondary- low crime rate, this phenomenon is in fact more widespread than what you might think.
I decided to get in touch with the creators of two of these projects: the Alpomat, which can be found in several locations in Zurich, and the so-called “Fondue Vending Machine” from Schaukäserei, the cheese factory within Engelberg´s Monastery in Central Switzerland. For the Alpomat, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mrs. Margrit Abderhalden, an organic farmer, owner of the Abderhalden farm, first project creator and one of the main suppliers, and with Mrs. Patricia Mariani, project leader at the Kleinbauern-Vereinigung (Small Farmers Association). For the fondue vending machine, I interviewed Mr. Walter Grob, owner of Engelberg´s cheese factory itself.
IM – When and why the idea of a vending machine?
MA – The idea came about 6 years ago. Before we took over today’s farm in Gibswil in the Zurich Oberland, my husband and I ran Alp Malbun in the Rhine Valley, and we were looking for new sales channels for our alp cheese. Since our products require a lot of manual work and we put a lot of passion into them, it was out of the question for us to sell them to the wholesaler at a price that did not cover costs. This led to the idea of the Alpomat, a self-service machine filled with alp and farm specialties. The Kleinbauern-Vereinigung finally helped us bring the Alpomat to Zurich, right in the middle of the city.
PM – At the end of 2016 we, at the Kleinbauern-Vereinigung, were working intensively on the topic of direct marketing and new sales channels for local farmers. At that point we were already operating a stand with Margrit Abderhalden at the Slow Food Market in Zurich, so her idea and project came exactly at the right time!
WG – At a board meeting in 2017; for personal reasons, I was already in touch with vending machine providers in Western Switzerland since 2009, so the idea fell quite quickly in place.
IM – Was it difficult to launch the project from a practical point of view?
MA – Choosing the right machine model, setting up the required technology and its operation, naturally took time. However, the longest was the search for suitable locations in the city of Zurich. To get started, we needed several locations not only with sufficient customer frequency but also with the approval of the property owners. Luckily, most owners and property managers reacted positively to the project idea, but often the concrete implementation failed: lack of space, strict requirements regarding the architectural appearance, competition clauses due to retailers’ spaces being already rented, etc. Five site partners eventually gave the green light for the pilot phase and so we were able to start in autumn 2018.
WG – For me, it was not really that difficult, as I was already in contact with vending machine providers. I was able to buy the machine from a colleague from the dairy industry, who had no use for it. The machine itself is the only of this kind in the area, which made it easier for us to launch the project.
IM – How does the restock work?
WG – Being the cheese vending machine almost within walking distance from the Monastery, makes it less complicated for us to organize these logistics. We usually refill it once a week.
MA – We currently have a product warehouse on our farm in Gibswil in the Zurich Oberland. The other farms deliver their products directly to us or I pick them up when I’m passing nearby. The Alpomats are currently replenished approximately once a week. In the medium to long term – as soon as we have enough locations that sell a certain amount- we are planning to have a storage facility in Zurich as well.
IM – How is the pilot project going? How is the feedback?
MA – The Alpomat idea and the general product range are very well received by Zurich residents: customer needs are met and the idea is perceived as innovative. Many customers still come up with new location- and product suggestions, which we try to take into account as much as possible. The Alpomat which usually runs best is the one at the Albisriederplatz tram stop, as a large number of commuters pass by there every day. In the current Corona crisis, however, we are also seeing a lot more sales at locations in the residential areas.
PM – The pilot project in Zurich is going well, indeed: we are receiving a lot of positive feedback and the sales figures make us optimistic. Of course, there is still potential for optimizing both the choice of location and in the range of logistics. The pilot phase lasts a total of 4 years, then the Alpomat project should be profitable and stand on its own feet without external support. We are already receiving inquiries from other regions which would also like to install one or more Alpomats.
IM – In view of the current pandemic, do you see the vending machine as something scalable for just about any product?
WG – Yes, definitely! The location is crucial: our machine in the Titlis Talstation (the bottom chairlift station in Engelberg) is currently empty, in a good way: all our dairy products have been sold.
PM – We have been selling more products in Zurich since March last year than in the previous months, especially in the residential areas. Currently, more and more people are realizing the value of good food up close and the value of diverse, crisis-resistant agriculture, which of course makes us happy. The demand for such products and for the Alpomat concept would also be high in other regions. We do not want to rush anything at the moment, though: our aim is to continue to focus on the “pilot case” Zurich, where the potential is still great.
MA – The Alpomat project can definitely still grow, as there are plenty of products from small producers. However, from a certain number of locations up, logistics reach their limits, and to us, qualitative growth is more important than quantitative growth.
IM – Which products would you like to find in a vending machine?
AM – We are constantly testing new products: it is always exciting to see what customers buy and what not. Most of all, I am still happy to receive direct feedback when the customers are satisfied and the products taste good. Then I know that the great effort that we put into our products and the Alpomat project is appreciated. We would like to grow to a total of approximately 15 centrally-located machines in each district of the city of Zurich. That would be just great!
PM – Our vision is for the townspeople to find a diverse, seasonally changing range of food for everyday needs as well as for special occasions: choosing the Alpomat could be a supplement to the weekly market. In the long term, the Alpomats would ideally be located in very central spots such as the main train stations, where even commuters could shop regional products on their way home.
WG – Everything you need in life!