Running a Vending Machine Business – Part 1

A Fresh Take

I LOVE classroom businesses. Way back when I taught general education, my classroom management revolved around a ‘mini economy’. The idea was that students applied for jobs, they were hired and earned money to spend in our classroom store on Fridays. Students could make items to sell in the store to earn more money. Students kept money in the bank, learned how to keep a balance sheet, fill out withdrawal and deposit slips, they even paid taxes and utilities based on usage (the janitor had to get paid to clean up that mess around their desk!).

Running a classroom business within the special education classroom is an idea that’s been around for quite some time. While I knew I couldn’t do something as elaborate as my former ‘mini economy’, I still wanted to give my students opportunities by running a classroom business. With a little time and creativity, I came up with an idea that would work for my classroom and solve a need for my school – a win-win!

Brainstorming Ideas

It was summer and I was brainstorming ideas for my classroom. I was bummed a coffee cart wouldn’t work for my classroom. Several of my students have physical challenges and need support when walking, so getting up the stairs in our school build in the 1940’s was a no-go (thank goodness we are building a new building where everything is one level!). I thought about modifying the idea so that we packaged snacks for teachers who order once a week, but that just didn’t seem right. Part of why I wanted to create a classroom business was to get my students in front of other staff and give them opportunities to interact with more staff and peers.

Our staff break room had a soda fridge where people could purchase soda, but our staff member who had the responsibility of purchasing soda was retiring soon. When brainstorming, I knew there had to be a way to combine the soda fridge responsibilities with the classroom business. One night I was mindlessly scrolling through social media when I came across a vending machine for sale. That’s when I it clicked – a vending machine would be the perfect business for my students.

Hoops & Solutions

I won’t lie, I’m pretty sure when the words “I want to find a vending machine” came out of my mouth, my husband thought I was crazy. I explained my idea, got him on board, and sent off a few emails to my principals asking for approval, and laying out why I wanted to start the business. I explained that this idea would help our school as well as help my students. I waited (not so patiently) for a response. Two weeks later, I got the email that I had the go-ahead. I met with my administration to work out details later that week and started planning.

Becoming An ‘Expert’

Let me be clear about something – I knew NOTHING about vending machines before starting this adventure. I mean zero. The only experience I had was using them. I had no idea how they worked, what type of machine to get, how to determine pricing, etc. So, I went where everyone learns about things: YouTube and Facebook Groups! I watched hundreds of videos on vending machines and learned what type were easy to service and use. I joined several local groups where vending machine experts shared knowledge and soaked up everything I could find. People truly are kind – any question I had people gladly answered or gave advice. Pretty soon, I knew what I was looking for so I started shopping.

Waiting For The Perfect Machine

After doing research, I thought a small combo machine on wheels that vends both snacks and drinks would be the best solution for our school’s needs. New, these machines are $4,000+, A new machine was out of the question, so I hit up Facebook Marketplace. I found several machines under $1000, so I started asking people if they would consider dropping the price or donating their machine to our school. I hit nothing but dead-ends.

With only 3 weeks of summer left, I had about given up on the idea when I got a message from a seller I had previously reached out to. She was moving and had to have the office the vending machine was in cleaned out by the end of the week. She had tried selling the machine without luck. She told me if I could pick the machine up by the end of the week, I could have it for free. I couldn’t believe it (and neither could my husband when I told him I needed him to help me move it!). I promised I’d be there, got the address and booked a trailer to transport the machine. By the end of the week, I had a working vending machine in place for FREE. It was a dream come true.

Set Up

Over the next few weeks I cleaned up the machine and made sure everything was in working order. I ended up having to purchase some locks for the machine as well as a few other odds and ends. I started gathering inventory and got spreadsheets going to track cost and inventory. Once school started, my students helped get the machine loaded and placed a sign on it that said ‘coming soon’.

The Details

There’s simply too many details of this project to squeeze into one blog post, so I’ll be following up with a part 2 where I break down student jobs, financials, my out of pocket cost, and how we promote our business. I’ll share the skills my students are learning and how we approach things like customer service. Once it’s published, I’ll link it here.

Instant Hit

I made the announcement that my students would be running a vending machine business at our first staff meeting. I showed pictures of my students loading the machines and taking inventory back and forth between buildings in a wagon. Our staff were so excited – they loved the idea and they loved interacting with my students. The vending machine became an instant hit!

I’m proud of my students for meeting the needs of our school while building a business. They work hard every day and they are so proud of their accomplishments. Building staff who normally don’t have the opportunity to interact with my students now seek them out to talk about the ‘drink of the month’ or the job they do. All of their hard work pays off, and it shows! So far, our business is a huge success!

Jen Koenig, B.S, M.Ed., LBS1
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