From the September 2001 issue of Startups

It's 10 a.m., two hours to go before lunch, and your stomach is growling. You walk to the vending machine, change in hand, agonizing over the selection before you. Potato chips? No, too greasy. Candy bar? Too many calories. You fret for a few minutes before finally deciding to throw all those eat-healthy vows out the window and get a bag of M&Ms.

If Alex Winston has his way, the only choice to be made will be between healthy and healthy. The founder of Boston-based Healthvend Inc., Winston, 32, is the driving force behind a novel idea: Ditch the junk food and bring in vending machines filled with all-natural snacks.

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Winston's epiphany came in 1998 while, you guessed it, craving a snack at work. A health-conscious consumer, he was a little put off by what his company's vending machine had to offer. "I would go to the machine in the afternoon, and there was nothing there but junk food," he says. "The other food I eat during the day is usually healthy, and I thought, 'Why can't there be healthy snacks in a vending machine? Why is there always junk food?' "

But having an idea wasn't enough to get this business off the ground. So Winston, who had worked in the florist business, made it a point to learn the ins and outs of operating vending machines from experienced operators. After that, it was a matter of making a run to a local whole-foods market, gathering up snacks and calling distributors to see if the items came in vending-machine-friendly sizes.

The next year was spent incorporating and promoting the business. Winston set himself up at trade shows and local events, handing out samples, T-shirts and brochures. He also began cold-calling companies in the Boston area, confident his idea would strike a chord. Healthvend's first vending machine was installed in 1999, and there are now 35 machines in operation.

Though it's difficult for an independent, fledgling operator to get his vending machines into some larger businesses and universities, Winston doesn't plan to hook his business up with another operator, especially one that serves junk food. "I don't really want to promote junk food vending," he says. "I just want to be known as the healthy vending machine company."