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Ever tilt a vending machine trying to free a Snickers bar snagged at the end of that corkscrew thing? Curse a machine that ate your money, disgorging nothing in return? Secure a half-pint of milk that's past its prime?
In workplace lunch rooms, such dramas have long been commonplace. But in "micro markets," that's rapidly changing.
In micro markets, the company cafeteria is turned into a veritable convenience store stocked with fresh salads, deli sandwiches, string cheese, yogurt and other dairy products as well as the usual assortment of soda, water, candy, chips, granola bars and other snack foods.
Open shelves and over-sized coolers replace vending machines. Swipe-card transactions take place at kiosks that might dispense birthday wishes as readily as receipts.
Surveillance cameras oversee it all, providing vendors with some protection from lapses in the honor system.
"It's the best thing to happen to vending since the dollar-bill acceptor," said Mark Lathrop, quoting his father Larry, who preceded him at the helm of Uncasville-based Lathrop Vending.
The company, which serves some 500 workplaces in eastern Connecticut and beyond, has converted 19 of its customers to micro markets in the last couple of years, replacing scores of vending machines and, in two cases, on-site chefs.
Lathrop Vending, a franchisee of Avanti Markets of Seattle, a dominant player in the micro-markets world, derives 15 percent to 20 percent of its revenue from its micro-market installations.
"That's where the growth is," said Mike Reynolds, Lathrop's accounts manager. "It's revolutionizing the vending business."
Avanti supplies the surveillance systems and swipe-card technology Lathrop Vending installs, but doesn't dictate what Lathrop can sell at its micro markets. An East Hartford caterer supplies Lathrop's deli meals and sandwiches.
For employers, there's little cost in converting to a micro market, though many introduce them in conjunction with a redo of their cafeteria areas, Reynolds said.
"We wanted to do something special for the staff, so we gave them a great break room," said Diane Caristo, administrator of Bride Brook Health & Rehabilitation Center in Niantic, which switched from vending machines to a micro market about a year ago. Management spruced up the break room, applying fresh paint and purchasing new furniture.
The micro market's been a big hit at the 180-employee nursing home, according to Caristo.
"It's great that you can look at everything before you buy it - pull it out, read the ingredients, see if it's fresh. It's like having a little store in the building," said Deb Schneider, a Bride Brook receptionist. "We all love it. It's so convenient."
Carol Hull, a nurse, said that when she doesn't have time to make her lunch at home, she knows she'll be able to find something quick and nutritious in the micro market.
"Something I'd be bringing from home anyway," she said.
Lathrop Vending's biggest micro market is the one it installed at Bob's Discount Furniture Distribution Center in Taftville, where a chef used to cook for 450 employees.
"We're going there every day and twice on Fridays to restock," Reynolds said.
The Day Publishing Co. switched to a Lathrop Vending micro market earlier this year.
Employee concerns about the "Big Brother" aspect of the markets' surveillance systems quickly evaporate, Mark Lathrop said.
The systems consist of three ceiling-mounted cameras aimed at the shelves of merchandise and away from areas where people sit. The kiosks where purchases are recorded and Avanti swipe cards and personal credit cards are replenished also provide feedback that Lathrop Vending monitors via the Internet from its offices. Employers do not have access to the surveillance.
Typically, Reynolds said, Lathrop doesn't even review the digital surveillance unless an inventory discrepancy raises the possibility of theft.
"It's so nominal," he said. "Nobody wants to lose their job over a bag of chips."
Name: Lathrop Vending
Principals: Mark and Lynne Lathrop
Years in business: 42
Address: 152 Norwich-New London Turnpike, Uncasville
Phone: (860) 367-9115