Night Owls Flock to Sprinkles' Cupcake ATM
These people are not waiting in line to see a buzzed about band or to get into an exclusive dance club. They are queuing up by the dozens for fresh cupcakes dispensed from the new Sprinkles 24-hour cupcake ATM in Beverly Hills.
Most vending machines dispense stale processed snacks like chips and candy bars, but the bright pink and green Sprinkles cupcake ATM is offering its customers freshly baked gourmet cupcakes in their most popular flavors, such as chocolate marshmallow, red velvet and dark chocolate.
The crowd is mostly people in their 20s and 30s. The youngest, Bryelle Davy, 11, is living every child’s dream-- staying up way past her bedtime to eat cupcakes.
She and her older sister, Bryanna, 18, stand in line while their other family members wait nearby in a minivan. They have set up rotating shifts to deal with the waning temperatures of the unusually chilly night.
“If the cupcake is really good, then it’ll be worth it,” said Bryelle, smiling while shivering slightly.
Her sister agrees.
“I feel kind of pathetic standing here for a cupcake, but I’ve heard it’s really good,” said Bryanna, who is home on spring break from Arizona State University.
The gourmet cupcake bakery Sprinkles opened its new twist on a vending machine to the public at its flagship store in Beverly Hills last month, and the hype has been growing ever since.
“I heard about it on Yahoo, then it exploded on social media with friends checking in on Facebook,” said customer Steven Kwong, a student from Loyola Marymount University.
Kevin Petersen and Hayley Jane, also students at Loyola Marymount, discovered the cupcake ATM when friends posted photos in front of the machine on Facebook and plan to do the same.
“Main motive -- make other people jealous,” said Petersen, half-jokingly.
“What else are you going to say—‘Last night I went to a bar.’ Well, we went to this place with a vending machine that dispenses cupcakes,” said Peterson. “It’s an experience, not just a cupcake fix.”
The couple, like many others, were surprised to find the slow-moving line stretching down the street so late at night, but most bars and clubs in L.A. close at 2 a.m., leaving the rest of the night open to other sugar-laden possibilities.
“LA should take a hint that it needs more 24-hour things,” said Jane.
That need for around the clock accessibility touches upon the driving forces behind the business of vending machines, no matter what they sell.
According to Robert Hermanns, the director of Food Industry Management at USC, availability and convenience are the two primary factors that drive consumption for a vending machine.
“There’s a constantly pressed society in the U.S. for time and convenience which plays into this strategy [of vending machines],” said Hermanns.
The idea for the cupcake ATM originated when Sprinkles owner Candace Nelson had a late night craving for cupcakes while she was pregnant, but no bakeries were open.
The innovation holds true to its name, functioning very much like an ATM with its familiar touch-screen technology.
“It’s phenomenally easy, in the generation of the iPad and iPhone -- everything is touch-based. It’s easier than online shopping,” said Sprinkles’ Director of IT Vineet Chaplot, who helped create the cupcake ATM.
The last factor in the success behind a vending machine is customer satisfaction after purchasing the product, so that they will be motivated to return, said Hermanns.
Chaplot asserts that the cupcakes in the ATM, which can hold 600 of the individually boxed treats, are restocked throughout the day to ensure that customers get the same fresh cupcakes they would from the bakery.
Vending machines selling unusual items are a growing trend internationally, according to Hermanns, who has conducted research on such trends for presentations to food industry leaders.
In his research, Hermanns has encountered several inventive devices such as a machine that kneads dough and sprinkles toppings onto a custom pizza in Italy. One machine by Kraft uses visual recognition to discern if the customer is an adult to determine if it will give the person a free cheese sample. Another vending machine located nearby in West Hollywood dispenses up to 140 different sodas with the option to combine flavors.
Even amidst other vending machines, the cupcake ATM has a unique appeal.
“It hasn’t been the norm to see good quality food products from a vending machine,” said Hermanns. “A Snickers bar from a vending machine-- there’s nothing new about that.”
One of the financial benefits of having a vending machine over a retail operation is the lower cost of labor. “You don’t have to staff it, but the labor is whatever it takes to replenish it and making sure the machine is kept full,” said Hermanns.
The Sprinkles store closes at 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and at 8 p.m. on Sunday. But the 24-hour ATM allows Sprinkles to sell their cupcakes and other products, such as Sprinkles t-shirts and dog treats, to eager late-night customers even after the store closes.
Kat Gray and two friends, all in their early 20s, embarked on what they viewed as a late night adventure, leaving their apartment where they had been drinking wine to try out the new attraction.
“Its different, unconventional. And it’s in Beverly Hills-- it’s like a high class vending machine,” said Gray.
The cupcakes ATM’s initial draw will be the novelty, said Chaplot. But he thinks that it will broadly appeal to people who want dessert after dinner or people who do not want to wait in line for one cupcake during store hours.
At the opening on a Wednesday in early March, a typically long line wound outside the Sprinkles store with a much shorter line at the cupcake ATM.
The Sprinkles store is the picture of efficiency with just enough seating for a handful of people, and its small but clean design encourages people to quickly order and leave the cramped, bustling space.
The cupcakes inside the store cost $3.50, while the ones in the ATM are $4, but the cheaper price may not be the only reason why customers prefer the store to the machine.
“I like the human interaction better than using a machine to get a cupcake,” said John Stevens, who was standing in line for the store. If it were after-hours, though, he would use the ATM, he said.
Yvette Bracero is attracted to the cupcake ATM for exactly the reason that repels customers like Stevens.
“Getting a cupcake without talking to anybody really appeals to me,” said Bracero, who works nearby as a legal intern at William Morris Endeavor.
Bracero said the people most likely to use a 24-hour cupcake ATM are obvious: “Women like me with a sweet tooth. And drunk people.”
But most of the people in line on a recent Saturday night appeared sober and alert, ready to indulge in a sweet treat. One customer, Matthew Rohrig, suggested that a visit to the cupcake ATM is a late night alternative to a bar.
“We got here at 11 p.m., and there was already a long line. I don’t think anyone had time to get a drink,” said Rohrig.
Rohrig and his friend Jimmy McCann drove all the way from Long Beach to go on a cupcake run. They expected a wait but overheard others in line loudly complaining.
“We’re night owls anyway, but we might not come back on a weekend night,” said McCann, who found out about the ATM on Facebook.
In addition to the long line, the rows of plastic shelves for cupcakes behind the ATM were looking quite bare despite being filled to capacity earlier that night at 8 p.m., when the store closed. By 1:30 a.m., the selection of flavors was already limited to chocolate and vanilla, with customer favorites like red velvet and chocolate marshmallow already sold out.
Another complaint was that the ATM only allowed one cupcake per transaction, elongating the process for someone buying several of the baked goods.
But overall, the feedback has been positive, and customers in line appeared excited about the unique experience of purchasing cupcakes from an ATM. According to Chaplot, Sprinkles plans to install the machines in New York, Chicago and Washington D.C. within the next year.
Cupcake ATMs may soon become popular, but that makes the inaugural one even more special.
“When our kids talk about having this on every corner, I’ll say, ‘I was at the first one,’” said Petersen before he and his girlfriend purchased two cupcakes each.