Ramen Vending Machines Have Made Their Way to the U.S.
Three years ago, semiconductor engineer Andy Lin woke up hungry in the middle of the night and wondered why he couldn't get a decent bowl of ramen from a vending machine, like he could in Asia. Four prototypes later, his Yo-Kai Express vending machine is dispensing steaming-hot bowls of ramen at the Metreon, a shopping and cinema complex in San Francisco. You choose your bowl; pay by credit card, Apple Pay or with a code; watch a lively animation on the touch screen for the 45 seconds it takes for the bowl to be made; and then you're ready to eat. The current offerings are $11 each and come with chopsticks, a spoon and a mesh-like carrier so you don't burn your fingers transporting the bowl to a nearby table.
The vending machine offers a choice of ramen broth—tonkotsu or miso—and each one is topped with thin tender slices of pork, corn, seaweed, mushrooms and green onions. Lin expects to launch two new flavors every month, with black garlic next on the horizon. Ramen vending machines are slated to be installed at several terminals at SFO, and from there, it's worldwide ramen domination with expansion into Chicago, Austin, Boston, Miami and Seattle.
Lin has plans for other kinds of meals, such as chicken and beef pho, rice plates, soup dumplings, Taiwanese beef noodle soup, and more. The venture's chief culinary officer is a chef and the restaurateur behind one of San Francisco's Michelin-star sushi bars, and Lin prides himself on using real, fresh ingredients and custom-made ramen noodles. With convenience in mind, he's eager to install vending machines at health care facilities, universities, tech companies and resorts—basically, anywhere people might want a warm, quick and affordable meal.
If you're not near the Metreon, you can order bowls from Grubhub in San Francisco for delivery. But Lin, who's always thinking ahead, imagines selling ramen kits at grocery stores and is planning to get into franchising the vending machines as well. The only thing the enterprising engineer hasn't yet solved is how to top each bowl with a perfectly cooked egg.
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer and cookbook author who never says no to a warm doughnut. Follow her on Instagram at @cookingwithamy.
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