Stores on Wheels
Annette Nolan expects to be a game changer in the set-in-its-ways, $42 billion vending industry. What she has in mind are retail stores that travel — as far as Moscow.
Annette Nolan “saw a need to take the product to people, rather than people to the product” and developed VendaCarts, like the one opposite.
Mobile’s Carts Blanche LLC markets and sells vending machines, sort of, but not quite. Because referring to Carts Blanche’s ‘VendaCarts’ as just a vending machine is like referring to Godzilla as just a lizard. Carts Blanche may change the way we insert quarters.
And for Annette Nolan, it may have changed her life.
From an office in downtown Mobile, she runs a game-changing empire in the vending industry, whether they want it or not. Carts Blanche produces colossal “VendaCarts” that can house a small grocery store, cater an army, set up automated banking in a pasture, erect video arcades on wheels and more. But for the CEO, as with any business owner, there were initial obstacles.
Hers included fibromyalgia, which forced her to choose between working for the short-term and possibly never again, or putting her business dream on hold while she recovered. She chose the latter, taking six years away from her fledgling enterprise, but using the time to broaden her product research.
Back on the job since 2007, she has used what she learned to develop an even stronger product line.
“We don’t face problems, we face challenges,” says Nolan, knowing that her company and its products are firmly on the move.
“We have two VendaCarts in Moscow,” she says, “and one operated by Airbus.”
So what is her product, the VendaCarts that are now at work here and abroad?
Basically, it is the marriage of mobile real estate with self-serve robotic equipment and billboard advertising.
Target customers include construction companies, vending operators, corporations, commercial food services, caterers, entrepreneurs, marketing and promotional companies, persons with disabilities, veterans and retirees interested in part-time or full-time retirement careers. Beyond traditional uses, Nolan’s carts also can fill a need during disaster relief operations, on military sites and during shutdowns.
Nolan is a trailblazer in an industry that doesn’t always welcome blazed trails. “The $42 billion industry has been around for over a century,” she notes. But the vending stations have been almost as immobile as brick-and-mortar stores — small upright boxes that demand an electrical outlet and always seem to prefer correct change.
“We will change that,” says Nolan. “We are the only company with this size capability and products that can be moved anywhere.” VendaCarts are not slaves to plugs. A power cord should be an electricity source, she contends, not a tether.
According to company brochures, “Once on location, both sides of the trailer are raised to create awnings, exposing the ready to operate self-service food and beverage vending business. The automated machines create a quick way to deliver food to more customers in a shorter timeframe. Pre-packaged foods and beverages ensure healthier and safer products for the customer.”
With three sizes: 16, 20 and 24 feet, VendaCarts are about the size of a small garage. Custom designed to client specifications, the units are tailored for food sales/catering kiosks, arcade games, banking, business promotions and sales or some other customer request. It can be set up in a parking lot, at a county fair, sports venue or birthday party — just about anywhere accessible by road.
“The beauty of this system is that the operator can set up, stock and walk away. The VendaCart takes it from there,” says Nolan. “The onboard computer will send the operator a text message when supplies are low.”
Trailers with a price range starting at a $27,500 basic model to $40,000 deluxe are available to plug into a power supply or with onboard electrical generators. Depending on customer needs, VendaCarts offer refrigeration, ATM machines, Wi-Fi, Facebook and Twitter capabilities. Pop up the optional decorative awnings and you have a portable home on the range that vends food in as little as 15 seconds.
Getting VendaCarts to customers is not the problem. Getting VendaCarts to Nolan was.
“I talked to hundreds of trailer manufacturers before finding mine,” she says. “Most fabricators did not want to deviate from their designs. If they made horse, NASCAR or motorcycle trailers, that’s what they wanted to sell me. I couldn’t go to my competition for help. I was afraid they would steal my idea.” And funding sources demanded more than an idea, they wanted a prototype. She delivered.
It was too important not to — an idea that’s been germinating since her very first job, operating a flower shop in Mount Vernon. Not long after, she moved into a pushcart and kiosk business and realized that the products available weren’t meeting all the needs.
“I saw a need for more,” says Nolan. “First, I wanted vending machines more accessible by people with disabilities. Second, I saw a need to take the product to people, rather than people to the product.”
“I saw a huge demand and opportunity to take vending to the masses,” says Nolan. “We are actively partnering with other industry companies in the promotion, sales and leasing of VendaCarts.”
Nolan and business partner Kathy Lovitt acknowledge that they are marketing a new concept in an industry that doesn’t accept new ideas quickly.
But, “You cannot keep Annette down,” says Lovitt. “She has endless positive energy.”
“If the industry will embrace this new concept, we will see great things happening,” Lovitt adds. “And we are getting our word out with social media and marketing.”
And once the order comes, VendaWorks can deliver within six to eight weeks — maybe a trifle longer in spring when the outdoor event marketplace demands more equipment.
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.