Food Forum
Vol. 36 No. 4   Winter 2022

TRENDS IN TASTE

Food Vending Machines

Tsukemen dipping noodles, purchased frozen from this vending machine on a Tokyo street.
Courtesy of Maruyama Seimen Inc.

Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan. Whether indoors, outdoors, in cities, alongside country rice paddies, in the mountains or by the beach, a handy snack or drink is always within arm’s reach. Vending machines typically sell beverages, but there is a recent uptick in food vending machines that offer up a surprisingly wide range of frozen foods, like gyoza dumplings, ramen, karaage Japanese deep-fried chicken, pizza, sashimi—even caviar.

The food vending machine trend has gained traction, thanks in part to the country’s ongoing labor shortage, and to demand for contactless shopping spurred by the pandemic. But the most significant contributions to their expansion are advancements in refrigeration and freezing technologies, along with storage capabilities that can adapt to products of varying shape, size and weight. Products in frozen food vending machines were once limited to small items such as ice cream, but today’s machines with adjustable compartments can store a broader range of goods.

A grab-and-go
gourmet experience

Food vending machines are being embraced by restaurants that install them in front of their shops, so customers with a craving can buy menu items in frozen form, day or night. There are unmanned vending shops dedicated to machines that sell frozen foods from well-known restaurants and specialty stores across Japan: for example, a customer can buy Osaka okonomiyaki (savory “pancakes”), Sendai yakiniku grilled meat or Hakata ramen at vending machines in Tokyo. Generally speaking, such machine products are slightly more expensive than food sold at retailers or supermarkets, but cost about the same or even a little less than actually dining in the restaurants.

There’s something for everyone, everywhere. Vending machines sell distinctive confectionery on city streets, fresh cut fruit in train stations, and steak and barbeque in residential areas. Japan’s innovative food vending machines have made frozen meals a fun and effortless option, providing busy consumers with a convenient grab-and-go gourmet experience at home.

Near a busy train station in Tokyo, this unmanned vending machine shop sells various frozen foods, including okonomiyaki and yakiniku grilled meat.