When he wasn't busy governing the city and country and practicing law, Cincinnati native David Pepper always wondered why people would spend an hour working out at the gym, only to grab a soda and candy bar on their way out the door. So the lawyer-turned-businessman decided to try his hand at social entrepreneurship.
“You've got these vending machines all over the place undermining the goals that people have set for themselves," Pepper says.
And in some instances, foods high in saturated fat, sodium or sugar are the only snacks available to children.
To provide a different option, Pepper, best known for his political career and his lineage (he is the son of former P&G CEO John Pepper and philanthropist wife Francie), began operating a chain of healthy food vending machines in Cincinnati last year.
“We thought it was a really interesting idea both as a business, but also as a part of a cause,” Pepper says.
Pepper started the business with partner Scott Stern, who lives in Denver, last April with a trial run at the Krohn Conservatory Butterfly Show. Their business, called Pepstern, now has about 50 machines in Cincinnati and Denver with plans to expand in both regions. Most of their machines are located in places like schools, gyms and corporate offices, and each location sells a mix of snacks custom-tailored to its clientele.
While it’s difficult to broadly define “healthy snacks,” some products available in the machines are all natural, low in fat or low in sodium, but all of them stand as an alternative to the classic snack items typically found in food vending machines. The machines, provided by a company called H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Vending, carry food like Stacey’s Pita Chips, Popchips and Pirate’s Booty, and drinks like Honest Tea.
Pepper says he and his partner spent the first few months figuring out what products work best in the different locations. The machines contain feedback mechanisms that update the owners every six hours with information about what items have sold in which locations.
“You learn quickly what sells and what doesn't sell,” Pepper says.
Pepper’s company installs machines in schools that enable the schools to be in compliance with healthy eating guidelines implemented by the Ohio state government last year. He said schools are by far their best-selling locations.
Pepper said a healthy vending machine located next to a pack of standard snack machines does not sell well. The success of a healthy food vending machine hinges on it being in the right location.
“We find locations that actually care about this issue,” Pepper says. “They need to be places that say, ‘Hey, we want our employees or our customers to have healthier options.' ”
By Henry Sweets