The Old First Ward Community Center runs healthy cooking classes for children and seniors, an after-school Kids Cafe and a community garden. It helps explain why the Republic Street center recently added a Fresh Healthy Vending machine near the main entrance.
“Nutrition is one of the most important things we do,” Director Laura Kelly said. “This is essentially a food desert down here. We do a lot of things to bring nutrition sufficiency to the neighborhood, so this just made a lot of sense.”
The machine is one of a half-dozen owned and maintained by Mike Ficorilli, owner of the new Fresh Healthy Vending franchise in Western New York. Several other vending sites are in the works. The machines dispense baked potato chips, kettle popcorn and Veggie Straws, mostly flavored with sea salt. Protein bars, peanuts and dried fruit also are part of the mix, along with 100 percent fruit juices, sugar-free iced teas and protein shakes.
“It’s the little decisions we make every day,” said Ficorilli, 61, of Grand Island, a computer information specialist in the banking industry, deacon at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Kenmore, and, for the last four months, healthy snack vendor.
“Think about it – 3,500 calories is a pound,” he said. “That’s 10 candy bars. If I eat one a day, that’s 3 pounds a month. By the end of the year, I’m 35 pounds overweight. If I cut out that one candy bar a day and have something else, that’s better.”
Ficorilli, and his wife, Lynne, a home-care nursing specialist with Catholic Charities, have three adult children, Ryan, Kristen and Joel, and four grandchildren. Several family members help keep the vending machines stocked.
Q. How did you become involved with the Fresh Healthy Vending franchise?
My wife and I, especially her, have always been entrepreneurial, looking for opportunities in business. I just don’t believe that you can sit back. I don’t know that I’ll ever truly retire but I don’t want to work hard. So we were looking for businesses that would have some sort of residual income without me having to put tons of hours in. My wife’s always been a big health nut and I follow along, too.
Q. Have you and your wife been involved in other businesses?
She had her own business helping newborn nursing moms. It was called the Care Connection. She sold that. We were distributors for Amway and Xango, another health company. We still drink the juice and use the products regularly.
Q. How does the franchise work?
You buy a block of machines and the company helps you find the locations. I have a dedicated person at corporate who calls around to different locations, explains the company and the product, and asks them if they’d be interested in seeing more. Then I’ll go and visit with managers at the individual sites. If we agree, we get a machine in place.
Q. Do you provide the service or do you have to pay to have a machine in a particular location?
It can work both ways. With my locations, I don’t have to pay them. They get a royalty percentage of the net profits. The percentage can be different but generally it’s not. That’s handled at corporate. It’s enough that the locations are happy but not so much it’s killing my profit margin.
Q. Where do you have the machines?
We find our most interested locations are elementary to middle school. We have one college: the new Daemen College Health Center. We’ve got them in St. Amelia’s School in Tonawanda, Christian Central Academy in Williamsville, St. John Vianney’s School in Orchard Park, Niagara Catholic in Niagara Falls and here in the Old First Ward. We’ve talked to the Buffalo Public Schools. They have to go through (administration) downtown. We talk to the food service staff and building principals, and corporate handles things from there. In two different public school districts, the school staff was excited about it but the school district said no.
It’s business, but I believe what we’re offering is a far better alternative than what’s currently there. My territory manager has talked with a lot of the private schools. We also run into areas with existing contracts. We can’t compete directly, so I can’t put Coke (juice) products in my machine if it’s sitting next to a Coke machine. So the drinks we use are something Coke doesn’t carry.
Q. What are the new contracts coming up?
Other private schools and another private college. There is one they’re working on at a state university but I don’t want to be specific because there are negotiations going on.
Q. Are you looking at any other market segments?
We’re going to look at office buildings and complexes. So far, the ones we’ve had discussions with have contracts with another vending company.
Q. Which machine tends to be the busiest?
Christian Central. They have a broad range of students and a lot of after-school programs. You get kids that are hungry and if the cafeteria isn’t open, they want something to eat. They have another vending machine that dispenses water. They’ve already decided they’re all in on healthy vending. We’ve gotten a tremendous response from them. I’ll fill the machine and we’ve gotten a call the cafeteria the next day saying the machine’s empty. Typically, we have to get out there two, three days a week.
Q. What are you finding tend to be your biggest sellers?
It’s all over the board. I love the Veggie Straws personally. You put them in one machine and they’re all gone in a few days. Then you refill it, and they sit there for a week. The Pirate Booty baked puffs, it’s the same with that. Same with the drinks. We visit each site at least twice a week and, if necessary, we change what’s available.
Q. Who helps you?
My wife helps out, my kids help out. One time, I brought my grandson, Keegan. He’s 11. He loves restocking the machine. My son, Ryan, is a financial planner and helps me out when he can.
Q. What is the standard for health that is used with the machines?
I do most of the product selection myself. My wife helps out a great deal. Our standard is, first off, are they going to eat it? You don’t see cauliflower sticks in there because kids aren’t going to eat cauliflower and broccoli sticks. It would be nice if they did, but they don’t. We have baked Lay’s in there. Are they the best? No, but they’re a heck of a lot better than the regular Lay’s. The Veggie Sticks are healthy. We sell a lot of stuff with sea salt. It’s better than iodized salt. We try to keep low-calorie, low-fat, no trans fats. We look for gluten-free or non-GMO. We sell 100 percent fruit juices, no sugar added, so it’s healthier than what people would typically buy.
Q. Do you tend to eat any of the products at home? What are your favorites?
Yes. My wife says, “You’re eating your profits.” I love the Veggie Straws. Every once in a while, I’ll grab them or one of the popcorns.
Q. Do the products vary from machine to machine?
The health center at Daemen has more protein-based stuff. When they’re working out, they want something with higher protein. Elementary, middle school range like more the Veggie Straws and Pirate Booty.
Q. Any products you’re thinking about?
I have a supplier in addition to doing my own local shopping. I’m thinking about adding soup in a cup – some of those are healthy – or oatmeal in a cup, where you just add hot water.
Q. How have your personal vending machine choices changed since the new job?
I probably shouldn’t mention the brand name, but I’ve loved the old-style, salty, greasy potato chips that are as bad for you as you can get. That’s one of my weaknesses. Now, I’ll take one of my low-salt, low-fat, baked potato chips. And I tend to steer away from the chocolate candy bars because I love those, too. I love the protein bars now. If I can get a 100-calorie bar that has 7 or 8 grams of protein versus something a 340-calorie bar with no protein and all sugar, it’s a no brainer.
Q. What’s the price range on your items.
I set the max on the machine at $3. I’ve got some smaller bags of pretzels that are 75 cents. Some of those small Apple & Eve fruit juices are 75 cents to a dollar. The higher priced items would tend to be the power bars, protein drinks and beef jerky.
Q. Why beef jerky?
It’s another high-protein source that generally speaking is not loaded with sugar and fats. Yes, they’re processed, but it’s healthier than a lot of other things and because it’s high in protein, it’s more satisfying.
Q. What does a typical work week look like for you?
The computer job is full time. What I’ve found is that I can hit a couple of locations on lunch hour. After work, I might hit another machine on the way home, so I’m able to hit almost every location without too much trouble. My son, Ryan, lives in Tonawanda and his schedule is more flexible. I’ll get out on some Saturdays and even on some Sundays. Right now, I work with the parish Sunday morning and do a Bible study one night a week, and work with Catholic Charities as an ambassador, speaking one or two nights a month. This vending machine job is to assist in retirement. I don’t believe I should just sit back and let other people take care of me. As long as I’m feeling good, I’ll continue to work.
Q. How can those who are interested contact you?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.