April Glavine does not dream small. The award-winning entrepreneur has set her sights on becoming the Jamie Oliver of the vending machine world ― putting tasty, healthy food where mostly junk food has gone before.
The 31-year-old founder of Halifax-based Lean Machine Healthy Vending Service Inc. wants to build change by teaching children about nutrition, focusing on made-in-Canada products and “trying to provide a healthier world” – one machine at a time.
That passion was recognized Nov. 1, when Lean Machine won the 2011 small-business ethics award from the Maritime Better Business Bureau.
With Canadian school boards, health organizations and provinces all getting on the anti-junk-food bandwagon, the competition in healthy vending has increased in recent years. But Ms. Glavine isn’t fazed.
Sparked by increasingly alarming statistics about the obesity epidemic in Canada, especially among children, she created Lean Machine in 2005, offering products that meet the standards of Canada’s registered dieticians as well as provincial regulations. The snacks include energy and cereal bars, wraps and burritos, trail mixes, pita chips, regular and soy milks, fruit juices and sparkling water.
“Our goal with Lean Machine is to show that healthy food is just as convenient ... as junk food, so we try to parallel the prices,” Ms. Glavine explains, noting that an average 45 to 60 per cent of daily calories are consumed through snacking.
When she started, there were no rules or legislation against junk food in schools; healthy vending was pretty much an oxymoron and the larger companies had a lock on the multibillion-dollar industry. The banks were not willing to invest in her idea, so “I got my first loan from my parents.” She worked two other jobs to keep things going.
Ms. Glavine launched her first machine in a private institution, the Halifax Grammar School, in 2005. Back then she was everything: receptionist, salesperson, technician and chief executive officer. Now, she says, through licensees and partnerships with larger vending companies, Lean Machine has 450 machines – and counting – in PEI, Nova Scotia, Alberta and British Columbia, mostly in schools but also in universities, gyms, health-care institutions, call centres, community centres and large corporations. Last year, the company won the gold medal for Small Business of the Year from the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and started turning a profit.
To get there, Ms. Glavine, armed with support in 2006 from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, moved Lean Machine away from running and servicing vending machines and developed a three-pronged business plan for vending – a student-run business program, private licensees and partnerships with larger vending companies – as well as a research and development company, Lean Machine Fundraising, to create locally produced healthy products to replace items such as chocolate and cookie dough for school fundraising.
Lean Machine started approaching established vending companies with partnership proposals. “It wasn’t an easy sell,” she says. “It took about two years really to actually engage in a conversation that was positive in a sense that, ‘Okay, we see the market direction and we’re willing to give this a shot.’”
Lean Machine provides its expertise, Ms. Glavine says, and “the payback is visibility” at larger institutions – tenders Lean Machine is not in a position to bid for. She has linked up with Compass Group Canada Ltd. in Halifax and has a distributor, Mr.Vend-It Inc., in Calgary.
She also began offering Lean Machine as a licensee system with a royalty payback structure, where licensees buy the right to start their own Lean Machine businesses. “They can operate all the exact same programs that we operate, and they can even build partnerships if it’s right for their business model.”
Licensees get a list of 50 dietician-approved items they can choose from. Each vending machine can hold 23 items, has a refrigeration section for perishables and drinks, and in the newest incarnation, provides customers with nutritional information for each item.
Canadian content is a big part of Lean Machine’s focus, comprising at least 20 per cent of the products offered in each machine, and licensees are encouraged to find locally produced items. “We have a dietician who will review all the products that are being sourced,” Ms. Glavine says. “We really focus on locally sourcing first.”
To that end, she partnered with Ryan Johnstone to create Lean Machine Fundraising in 2008 and start its own line of healthy snacks. The point, Ms. Glavine says, is to use Canadian agriculture to mimic what chocolate bar fundraisers are doing. “So you buy for $1 and you sell for $2; you yield $1, you have instant gratification and you’re also getting a healthy snack.”
Another initiative, Lean Machine Way, combines healthy vending in schools with learning how to run a business. Under the entrepreneurial program, a student group, such as a team or council, leases and run a vending machine, collecting the profits for extracurricular activities.
“They really test to see what consumers are buying; they do all the communications work, all the marketing, all the accounting, financing, they get to understand just-in-time inventory,” Ms. Glavine says.
The program starts with a one-year contract and can be renewed for five years. Then they can buy the machine and graduate to licensee status, Ms. Glavine explains.
Ms. Glavine’s personal history proves just how much young entrepreneurs can achieve. She was chosen to attend first G8 summit on youth entrepreneurship in Italy in 2009 and this year, she represented Canada at the G-20 Young Entrepreneur Summit in France.
“My goal, eventually, is to have a voice that’s not just strong in Canada ... but it’s something that I would really love to bring out into other countries,” she says.
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