Ronald McDonald beware--a robot that pops out cups of sizzling french fries in 30 seconds is after you.
For 80 cents, a high-tech Canadian vending machine called the "Spud Factory" drops a single order of sliced tubers into hot vegetable oil, fries them and dumps the resulting morsels into a cardboard cup.
"One day you're going to drive up to McDonald's and get a hamburger, french fries and a drink out of a vending machine," said Brian Haskins, a founder of Robotic Vending Services Inc. of San Jose, which holds the U.S. distribution rights.
"More and more, people are going to be eating high-quality food in vending format," Haskins said.
'Kids Love Them'
For 60 years, inventors have struggled to develop a vending machine that can deliver fresh french fries. To be successful, the machine must be able to refrigerate the potato strips while keeping the oil hot. It also must be fireproof.
Company President Lee C. Benjamin finally found a machine that met the criteria. Operated by a microprocessor, it costs $6,500 and is made by Canadian Manoir Industries of Toronto.
For now, the sole user of the Spud Factory is the Navy. Last month the company installed seven machines at Moffett Field Naval Air Station in Mountain View, just west of San Jose. It plans to install additional machines at three San Francisco Bay naval air stations and a hospital.
"The first time I tried it, the potatoes were all broken. But since then, it's been great. They taste real good," said Dinah Ruiz, a food service clerk who visits the machines several times a week. "My kids love them."
Marketing director Tony Rivera said he and his partners are attempting to profit by combining a craze for potatoes with a craze for vending machines.
The average American consumes more than 40 pounds of potatoes a year, and vending machines make up a $20-billion industry.
Robotic Vending plans to place 4,000 machines throughout California before spreading to the rest of the country.
With an expected average of 50 sales a day per machine, the company hopes to bring in $56 million in annual revenue.
The company plans to first zero in on larger clients, such as hospitals and stadiums, said Rivera.
"Right now we are the only company in the U.S. that has a vending machine that is certified. Everyone else is using machines that they are basically testing," Rivera said.
One of those others is Ore-Ida Foods, a subsidiary of H. J. Heinz Co. in Pittsburgh, which is developing a similar machine.