ODENVILLE, Ala. -- Last week, a Lil Mart convenience store in Odenville, Ala., became the official retail launch site for a new vending concept that could be the ultimate convenience for carnivores--a vending machine that dispenses steak in the same way other vending machines dispense cola. With the push of a button, shoppers can purchase fresh cuts of meat, reported the Birmingham News.
Customers can feed $1 or $5 bills into the machine developed by Birmingham, Ala.-based Smart Butcher or swipe a credit or debit card and pay $2.49 for pork steaks, $3.99 for an 8-oz. sirloin or $5.99 for a 12-oz. ribeye steak. The machine also sells sausages and other meats.
Amir Sagani, manager at the Lil Mart in Odenville, said he jumped at the chance to have the machine put in his store. "The owners of this machine he came down here to me and asked if I want to try the machine here--it's a new concept. I said sure, why not, so he brought it out here to give it a try and see how it works out," Sagani told CBS42 in a separate report (click on the CBS42 video below to see how Smart Butcher works).
Sagani told the news outlet that the machine sells about 10 to 20 meats a day. "It's got the New York strip, ribeye, pork chop, sirloin, pork tenderloin, sausages, there's a variety in there," he said.
Rob Harrison came up with the idea for Smart Butcher on Easter weekend as he drove the back roads through St. Clair County and noticed a meat market in Springville. "I begin to think about how much overhead there must be just to sell fresh meat," Harrison told the newspaper. "I started thinking how much better it would be to have a machine to sell meat in places like that."
He began researching vending machines and found a company in Pennsylvania that made a refrigerated machine that would work for his idea. The machine keeps track of sales and uses cellphone technology to let Harrison know when a sale is made and when the machine needs to be restocked.
Harrison contacted his childhood friend, Chase Evans, whose family has a meat wholesale business in Birmingham, and persuaded him to be a partner.
"We looked into the idea and found a way to package the meat for the machine to keep it fresh," Evans told the paper. "The more we looked into it, the more reason we had to think it could work."
The partners invested $10,000 to buy the first machine and get Smart Butcher started. They first put the machine in Mark's Outdoors in Vestavia Hills, Ala., to test the idea on customers there. "We got a lot of good feedback and people seemed to really like the concept," Harrison said. "We heard things like, 'I wish I had thought of that' and 'I think I've seen it all now'."
The machine was able to sell the steaks, sirloin tips or sausage at the volumes Harrison had hoped, so they took the machine out of Mark's and begin studying where to put it next. Then Harrison went back to how he got the original idea and thought the machine might do better in rural areas that don't have easy access to grocers or meat markets in bigger towns or cities. That led him to contact the owner of Lil Mart, which has four locations in Odenville and Ashville.
"The idea is to place it in areas that do not have sufficient demand for a high-quality meat market but has enough of a demand to support a high-quality vending machine," Robert Robicheaux, UAB marketing and retailing professor, told the paper. "I think it's truly innovative. It's such a novel concept that there is a challenge to get people to try the delivery method."
As with any new concept, it requires changing the mindset of potential customers, he added. "The challenge is to get people to walk up to a vending machine and pay seven or eight dollars for a steak in the same way they would pay a dollar for a Coke."
He said Smart Butcher has access to good quality meats, which could have been a big initial hurdle for the upstart company. But when and if the machines do become popular, more hurdles will arise, he said. "The challenge is to keep the machines stocked and up to date," Robicheaux said. "There is a marketing challenge. There is a logistics challenge."
Still, the concept of selling fresh meat or seafood through vending machines is successful in Asia, India and some European countries, so Robicheaux said it could be successful here. "I think there are going to be applications where it can work under the right circumstances," he said.
Harrison said campgrounds, state parks and other places where people are prepared to cook on an open flame but don't want to run into town to a grocery store are possibilities. "When we find the right niche, we're going to blow it up," Evans said. "There is a perfect spot for this, and we're going to find it."