“I’ve had this idea for a while,”Applestone tells Modern Farmer in a phone interview. “It goes back to my experiences of going to the automat as a kid in Manhattan. It left a lasting impression.”
Applestone and his wife, Jessica, started Fleisher’s Organic and Grassfed Meats in Kingston, New York, in 2004 and later expanded into Brooklyn. They left the company in 2014 to found Applestone Meat Company in Accord, New York, where they focus on processing (they have two USDA-certified facilities) and working more closely with local farmers; less on retail. To wit, the shop doesn’t have a retail meat counter. Instead they distribute their line of meat products – including beef, lamb, pork, and sausage – via a delivery service. But that all changed when Applestone recently installed two automat-style meat vending machines.
Fresh-food vending machines aren’t necessarily a brand-new concept; a butcher shop in Paris installed a meat machine earlier this year, a convenience store in Alabama unveiled one back in 2011, and a 130-year-old butcher shop in Cle Elum, Washington, launched theirs in November. Plus, we’ve heard about produce machines and raw milk stations for a while now. But Applestone’s is the first to provide local, sustainably raised meat products, including burger patties, a variety of sausage, steaks and other beef cuts, and even pet food. Each machine can hold up to 240 items, so Applestone varies the selection depending on season.
“If there’s rainy weather I can put more stew meat in and tie up a couple of roasts and put those in, and it will always sell because that’s exactly what the weather calls for,” he says. “All of a sudden I’m doing what I do best again: cutting for a case, but it’s open 24-7 and takes credit cards. Sometimes people just don’t want to deal with a butcher. It can be an intimidating thing.”
It took a year-and-a-half for Applestone to choose which refrigerated food service system to use, and he tweaked the software to perfect the “face-to-face” service it provides customers. The system is set up for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) and monitors the temperature 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If the machine goes above a safe temperature for more than 30 minutes, the system shuts down and stays refrigerated, but won’t let customers make a purchase.
Soon, Applestone wants to add two more machines to their Accord location, four at their nearby Stone Ridge, New York, location, and at least four further afield – ideally in spots where customers can access them on their commutes home. Beyond this, Applestone envisions butcher shops, USDA-certified facilities, farm stands, and even farms adopting this technology, he says, “as a way to get more local food out to more people at a reasonable price.” Coming from one of the leaders of the sustainable meat movement the idea sounds feasible. But Applestone worries not everyone will get on board.
“It seems to me the industry is more concerned with smoking the perfect ham instead of making the delivery system easier and better, and keeping prices down,” says Applestone. “The industry failed customers because we couldn’t make a sustainable, healthy product available to them on their hours. When you think about these machines, that’s what they can do.”