Vending machines will keep Valentine’s Day happy in Portland during COVID
When she had to close her restaurant’s doors due to COVID-19, one entrepreneur installed vending machines to continue serving customers. The move has proved successful.
If you live in Portland, Oregon, COVID-19 doesn’t have to spoil your Valentine’s Day. You can treat your special someone to chocolates, macrons and gifts at Pix Patisserie without having to come into contact with a stranger.
The chocolate meringue, Tahitian vanilla bean mousse and praline/rum Bavarian cream treats that the French desserts/Spanish tapas restaurant has long been famous for are available from two carousel style vending machines right outside the front door — all hours of the day and night.
If you feel lucky, you might try to win a pair of 14 karat white gold stud earrings with 12 ¼ carat round cut diamonds hidden in one of the box of chocolates sitting atop one of the 4 1/8-inch high shelves inside a vending machine.
And don’t forget to take a picture in the photo booth and post it on social media for a chance to win a free dessert.
Pandemic necessitated change
|Two Shoppertron machines offer desserts at the entrance to Pix Patisserie.
Like other Portland business owners, Cheryl Wakerhauser had to close her doors in March because of COVID-19. But the entrepreneur didn’t see that as a reason to stop serving her customers their favorite desserts.
In fact, when the doors closed (except for takeout), she saw it as a chance to test a concept she had already given some thought to: vending. While the restaurant remains closed, the two “Pix-o-matic” vending machines now offer the full menu 24/7.
“It’s been amazing,” Wakerhauser told Vending Times. “Now, with the vending machine, you don’t even have to call me. You just stop by — in the middle of the night if you want — and pick something out. We’re open 24 hours a day because I have the vending machines outside the front door. It’s very convenient.”
“What we’re trying to do here with the vending machine is keep what we were doing when we were open alive and well,” she said. “The same thing we were doing last Valentine’s Day we’re doing this Valentine’s Day — in a vending machine.”
The restaurant, when it was open for dining, served patrons from 4 p.m. to midnight on weekdays and 2 p.m. to midnight on weekends. Customers can still order takeout and pick up their order at the door, she said, but “no one comes into the restaurant, not even for the takeout.”
Business restrictions confusing
The business restrictions in Portland have varied since the lockdown began — from a complete closure to limited hours, changing occupancy requirements, takeout only and outdoor dining only — and Wakerhauser is glad she has not had to try to keep track of them.
“It’s all over the map,” she said of the rules. “For us, we’ve just stayed the same. Special orders and then the vending machines. The last thing I want to do on a Friday night is stand outside in the cold, and some people not wearing masks. That’s not for me, and I don’t think it’s safe for my customers.”
Wakerhauser, who started her restaurant after losing her job as a chef at a catering company following the 9/11 terror attack, began thinking about vending six years ago when she was having a hard time finding employees — a situation that forced her to close two days a week – resulting in lost sales.
“I wondered if I got a vending machine, we could be open all the time,” she said. But she wasn’t sure how receptive customers would be to a vending machine, so she shelved the idea at the time.
The pandemic changed all that, and she hasn’t looked back.
|Cheryl Wakerhauser stocks one of her Pix-o-matics.
Vending to the rescue
“As soon as the pandemic happened, I was like, ‘that (vending) is perfect,” she said.
She began with one refurbished 1998 Shoppertron machine she bought from Smitty’s Vending, a vending and refrigeration equipment distributor in Portland. The customer presses a button to rotate shelves and view all the selections before making a choice. The shelves are arranged in nine vertical rows.
In addition to the desserts, there are other items such as toys, canned fish and face masks.
Wakerhauser kept her fingers crossed the machine would net a few hundred dollars per week. She put signs up to instruct people how to use the Shoppertron.
It turns out there was no reason to worry.
“The first day we made $400,” she said. “The next day we made about $1,200, and the week after that, one Saturday we made $4,200 or $4,300 in a single day. I was stocking it and stocking it and stocking it.”
She didn’t hesitate to buy another Shoppertron the next month.
Holiday specials continue
Holiday specials have been a focus for Wakerhauser since she opened her restaurant 20 years ago, and the holidays so far have been just as busy for the vending machines.
“I find a way to do the same thing in the Pix-o-matic,” she said.
There is also a “Confessions Wall” on the restaurant window where people are invited to post personal notes. She is expecting as many as 100 postings on Valentine’s Day.
Security has not been an issue, possibly because the restaurant’s front door is close to the sidewalk with a fair amount of traffic. She also keeps the area lit and has music playing.
The extent of the vandalism was some graffiti written with a candle that was easy to wipe off, as well as an iPad that was stolen from the photo booth.
There have been no mechanical issues with the machines so far.
|Cheryl Wakerhauser plans to keep the vending machines even after her restaurant reopens for indoor dining.
The bottom line: a thumbs up
Wakerhauser is currently doing 75% of the volume she was doing before closing the restaurant — minus the cost of 19 of her 20 employees.
“I don’t have to have a staff here until 2 in the morning cleaning up the dishes and stuff,” she said. “No one has to sit there and take an order.”
“The downside is I only had seven days off in 2020,” she said. She recently rehired one of her five pastry chefs to help full time.
Wakerhauser does not know when the indoor dining will resume, but she will definitely keep the machines once the pandemic is over.
“As long as the vending machines are there, people can still buy stuff 24 hours a day,” she said.
For an update on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting convenience services, click here.
Photos courtesy of Pix Patisserie.