At some point, when the vaccine for COVID-19 has been distributed and the pandemic slows to a crawl, folks will return to offices around B.C en masse.
Many will also return to workplaces with tired vending machines crammed with junk food and soda pop, but a Vancouver startup is aiming to change that.
UpMeals SmartVending Solution on Thursday launched its refrigerated vending-machine meal service, the first of its kind in B.C. The company offers clients plant-based meals or plates with locally sourced, higher welfare meat and other protein sources, along with fresh juices, and nutritional snacks.
It was created by well-known local caterer Drew Munro and Ryan Angel, a Red Seal chef and registered holistic nutritionist.
Munro admits launching during a pandemic isn’t ideal, but he is confident the business will succeed, noting that now more than ever people want to have a hands-free meal solution at work.
Companies can use this technology as a way to offer customized, healthy and “most importantly safe meals for their employees that can be accessed whenever they need them,” said Munro, the company’s CEO.
SmartVending units have already been installed at several businesses in downtown Vancouver and the company is planning to announce more partners in the coming weeks, he said.
“We are planning installations over December and January, obviously COVID is making that a challenge… what we’re doing is positioning this technology and this solution as part of their safe return to work strategy,” he said.
Munro said many of their clients are opting to replace their junk food vending machines with their healthy alternative.
“This is what we are trying to do. We want to disrupt the traditional vending machine model which for the most part serve unhealthy, processed food.”
The vending machine market is a $24 billion a year industry, and is known for serving unhealthy but convenient food. Healthy vending is not a new concept. Four years ago, Postmedia featured another healthy vending startup called Fresh Now.
However, what makes UpMeals unique is that the vending interface and meals are all white-labeled, so it can suit a company’s brand. Then a chef creates custom meals for the company’s machines based on what the employees enjoy.
The software tracks the food trends and alerts UpMeals to which items are not selling so it can monitor the stock levels of the machines to minimize waste.
UpMeals delivers the food, which is in compostable or recyclable containers, weekly to the machines and vendors set the meal prices.
They are more affordable than traditional catering and branding, with an example of cost being about $7 to $10 for a salad bowl, according to Munro, who has worked in catering for more than a decade.
“They are on average 20 to 40 per cent more cost-effective than the per-person cost for a traditional catering delivery,” he said. “We are also more cost effective than a meal-delivery app.”
Meals that are nearing their shelf life can be discounted or donated to local food banks. The company has partnered with Vancouver Food Runners to deliver expired but still safe to eat meals to food banks and shelters.
“These are products that have passed optimal shelf freshness but are still perfectly safe, edible, fresh, chef-prepared items,” said Munro.
UpMeals recently won the Shibuya Food Tech Challenge for Social Innovation in Japan with plans to license their vending machine technology all over the world.
UpMeals sent Postmedia several items. Here is a short review of some of the food.
Fall Harvest Bowl – This was a favourite. A mix of wild rice, roasted Brussel sprouts, spiced chickpeas, beets, “shiitake bacon,” roasted yam and watermelon radishes is filling and deeply satisfying. It is topped with a “cashew ricotta,” which doesn’t taste like cheese at all but it does add an appetizing creamy element. The savoury miso dressing ties the bowl together and it all tastes so good you won’t want it to end.
LATE NIGHT DINNER:
Spaghetti and “Meat” Balls – This one will need to be heated up in the microwave. The plant-based meat tastes vegetarian, so more nutty and with rice, than many of the popular meat replacement products on the market. The dairy-free mushroom “cream” tastes like real cream but lighter. Provides a filling lunch, or dinner for the late-night worker.
FOR THE AFTERNOON SLUMP:
Coconut Cashew Energy Bites – No sugar spikes here. The vegan and gluten free balls are sweetened with dates. The energy in cashew butter, vegan protein powder, and oats will sustain you longer than chowing down on a Mars Bar during that afternoon slump (also toddler approved in case you want to bring them home to share.) Pair them with the “Tropical Greens” fresh juice with kale, spinach, coconut water, apple, pineapple, and mango. You won’t need a sugary energy drink to see you through the day after this.