Sean Kelly was a die-hard New York City gym rat back in 2003 when, after a particularly tough workout, he found himself in a quandary.
"I left the sports club in search of fuel, but couldn't find anything healthy for five square blocks," Kelly says. "There were white tablecloth restaurants, convenience stores and bagel shops."
Later, when Kelly saw a woman in the gym walk over to the vending machine, buy a 20-ounce Coke and put it in the cup holder of her treadmill, his fate was sealed. "I looked at that and said, that doesn't make sense," he says.
So Kelly founded FitFuel, a company that at first was dedicated to offering vending machine owners healthful options, but it soon morphed into a fitness e-tailer that eventually went bust. In 2007, Kelly was still transfixed by the idea of getting more healthful options into gyms, schools and office buildings. That's when he returned to his original idea and founded h.u.m.an. (helping unite man and nutrition) Healthy Vending. He developed partnerships and redesigned the vending machine from the ground up before launching in 2009.
So what do these next-generation vending machines look like? They're big, but 30 percent more efficient than older versions. All the lights are LEDs, and instead of corkscrews awkwardly dangling bags of chips, Kelly's machines use conveyor belts. They also take credit and debit cards.
But the biggest difference is the display at the top, which runs ads and informs consumers about the healthful products in the machines.
"I used to think the biggest problem was insufficient access to nutrition, but now I know that's only the second biggest problem," Kelly says. "Until you educate a person, they don't even know they need nutrition."
So far, h.u.m.a.n. has sold more than 500 machines to operators throughout the country, who are able to stock them with more than 5,000 products--including energy bars and juices, along with items like board shorts and gym towels. Kelly hopes 1,000 of his machines will be in schools, hospitals, office buildings and other public areas by the end of 2011.
Kelly has also customized and improved a vending machine that cooks and serves up frozen meals.
"How many kids go to school without breakfast?" he says. "The lunch lady could stock the machine and these kids could get a full, healthy meal."
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