Are pizza vending machines taking over Florida? (And where you can get an insta-pie)

Published Sept. 27, 2016

You can eat pizza with pepperoni, peppers, sausage and extra cheese. You can have it deep dish or thin crust. You can grab a slice from the shop, get a frozen pie from the store, and have one delivered to your door.

Or you can get it piping hot, fresh out of the vending machine.

Yup, vending machine — especially in Florida, which has more vending machines overall than any state, according to an IBISWorld Inc. industry report. Vending machines of the pizza variety are relatively new to the U.S. market, but companies are using Florida as their test kitchens and to staff their headquarters.

So why dispense pizza from a machine?

"First, it's something new in the United States," said Pizza Touch's Giselle Sandra. "Second, people here have a business lifestyle. They don't have time to stop and eat. To have a hot pizza ready to go in two minutes, that's a great thing."

If you're hankering for a vending-machine pie, the closest one to the Tampa Bay area is a Mobil Mart on S Florida Avenue in Lakeland. That's where Orlando-based Pizza Touch has one of its test machines. The other two are in Orlando, and the company has plans to roll out 100 more in Central Florida.

But don't fret, Tampa Bay pizza lovers. Sandra said some should start popping up locally in January and the company is still accepting applications from businesses that want to host their own pizza machines.

The machines are user-friendly and work with cash, credit or debit. Pizza Touch plans to expand its choices, but for now, the machines carry cheese, margherita, and mushroom and pepper pizzas. The personal-sized pies come out of a slot on a piece of white cardboard, ready to eat.

Sandra said her company, which has roots in Portugal and Italy, aims to put the machines in places people are likely to need a meal in a pinch: college campuses, hospitals, hotels, malls.

Tourists are also likely to pass through the Sunshine State, so some vendors may hope this exposes their product to a wider range of people, said Steven Kirn, executive director of the University of Florida's retail education and research center.

"But the general reason is that Florida is a very rapidly growing state," he said. "It's a reasonably good mirror of the population. Demographically, it's a pretty good place to try stuff out."

In Lakeland, 28-year-old Steven Meadows of Auburndale drove by the Mobil Mart and spotted the large red Pizza Touch vending machine.

"I decided to try it on a whim because it seemed interesting," he said.

He said the pizza wasn't bad, but a little doughy for his taste, following the standard cook time. The machine has options for how well done you want the pie. At $6 an order, he said, there are better pizzas out there, despite the machine's convenience.

Kirn suspects some of the pizza machines' chief competition will be the growing convenience stores and gas stations with full-service eateries, such as Wawa. Kirn also wonders how many people become return customers once the novelty wears off.

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"Overall, the vending machine has been kind of declining the last few years, but technology could change that," Kirn said. "It's not clear how this will shake out."