Introduction: How to Create an Alternative to Product Monopolies on Your Campus!
Way back when, there was no choice - you couldn't have light at night, and you couldn't have tacos on hot dog day.
In this day and age, we have options - McDonald's or Burger King? Mac or PC? Verizon or AT&T? Republican or Democrat? Coke or Pepsi?
Those options make themselves very well known - so much so that it can be called an assault on consumer consciousness.
This assault makes a vast majority of people unaware of other options - better options - that can make the difference between a mundane experience and a worthwhile one.
I want to share my efforts to make my community aware of better options - this is the story of the Student Vending Initiative.
Step 1: Decide What Is Important...
On many campuses around the country there are products and services sold to students by companies that are allowed to present themselves as the primary source (sometimes the only source) of a certain product or service for that location.
This does not have to be so, but it is a very common practice for many schools, especially small private schools that need the extra money from that corporate sponsorship.
There might be many ways that your school outsources services or products - like security personnel, cleaning crews, food service, vending machine operations, textbook sellers, coffee shops, etc.etc. - that need to have a competitive alternative. It is best to pick your battles wisely - student opinion is often inadequate to compete with legal liabilities such as safety and food regulations, so start with something manageable and stick through to the end.
My decision to start this project, actually wasn't my decision. A group of students on my campus formed a club called ReThink Coke after hearing Luis Cardona http://killercoke.org/ and Vandana Shiva http://www.navdanya.org/ speak about the atrocities committed by the Coca Cola corporation in South America and India.
As a club, they had used petitions and referendums to document the community opinion for four years - they did this well enough to prevent the president of our college from extending our 8 year long contract with Coke.
On my campus, Coca-Cola controlled all drink options in the vending machines and had prime placement in the cafeteria and campus store. The majority opinion was that there should no longer be vending machines and that Coke should be replaced by healthier options in the cafeteria.
Once Coke's contract had expired, the president of our college quit (along with the provost, the dean of students, and the head of facilities) and all the students working on the Rethink Coke campaign graduated. So Coke was allowed to continue operations, but no longer had an exclusive vending contract - this is where the fun begins.
Step 2: Creating an Alternative Business...
Before the president abandoned ship, she had told us that she would put the college "up for bid" to any vending company that would replace Coca-Cola. The only bid came from Coke.
A group of 4 students, myself included, decided to pursue another option more aggressively than the former president did - we wanted something that would fit our school's mission to be environmentally and socially conscious in all our undertakings.
We tried to hire a vending company that would reflect our ideals - a locally owned operation that serves beverages that are healthier for people and the environment. The only locally owned option sold mostly Coke products and was unwilling to carry our preferred products.
At this point, we started researching: Would purchasing our own machines be practical? Could we choose our own sodas? Where would the purchase money come from? Who would run the operation? What are the legalities of vending soda? Would the administration ever allow this to happen?
The answers are: yes, yes, a student fee collected every semester on our campus called the Renewable Energy Fund (REF), students, good question, and not really, but that's okay.
Let's start with the machines - at this point the options were open. We could buy brand new energy star machines, buy used machines from eBay, or buy refurbished machines from a small company specializing in restoring vending machines.
For a comparison of machines scroll over the pictures!
Step 3: Getting Down to the Business Plan...
After exhaustively researching all possibilities, we concluded that the refurbished vending machines from Antiquities Vending Company were the way to go. So the next logical step was to fill them with soda!
Finding glass bottle sodas that fit our needs was just as challenging as finding the machines themselves. Our ideal machine would be filled with the root beer from our local brewpub, berry spritzers from a winery 30 miles away, and a bunch of other flavors from soda manufacturers from within a 300 mile radius.
Our ideal, as realistic as it may have seemed, was not to be realized. The two most local options were too costly for us to include in our plan right off the bat, and the two most popular soda flavors on our campus - cola and diet cola - were not manufactured locally.
So we compromised.
The new plan was to get our sodas through local distributors from 3 companies: a brewery 250 miles away, a mom & pop soda company 300 miles away, and a nationally distributed soda manufacturer over 2000 miles away.
The plan was developing: we had machines and sodas picked out. We needed the money to buy them, staff them, and fund the miscellaneous costs that come with starting any business.
On to the proposal!
Step 4: How to Get the Start-up Money...
At this point the groundwork has been laid. We knew what we had to purchase, and could estimate the price range. We just had to get the money! Here is a link to the final draft of the proposal:
We composed several drafts of this business proposal for our project, which we had deemed the Student Vending Initiative (SVI). We had to achieve 3 levels of approval before moving forward with any part of the plan. It was time to impress.
A warning: Be open to negotiation about the quantity of your starting setup, not the quality. The amount of funding available to your project will inevitably change your plans. We had planned to replace all 10 Coke machines on our campus, but could only afford 3.
First off, our campus Renewable Energy Fund becomes available to any student project that is approved by the Environmental Council. Our Environmental Council is a board comprised of about 85% students and 15% faculty and staff, that meets weekly to discuss how well the environmental focus of our college is being fulfilled. They narrow down the proposals to a key few, which they send on to our student association.
At the secondary approval level, the proposals are put on the table at the student association's REF committee meeting where they are either rejected, granted partial funding, or granted full funding. Being a controversial project, SVI received partial funding, so we changed it's budget accordingly, shrinking our plan for approximately $18,000 to about $11,000.
Lastly the president of the college decides to either okay or deny the request as recommended by the Environmental Council and Student Association. After many meetings full of empty promises and fake smiles, we got the final budget approval, but not without drastic changes to the plan.
A lot of what we initially proposed was cut from our plan (the attached document is the pared down version), putting us in an uncomfortable position when the school-year ended. All of the SVI team had graduated, myself included, and we desperately needed personnel after the summer. The machines and the sodas were waiting in storage, the proposed machine locations were being debated, the interim president wanted nothing to do with the project, and the planned work study position had fallen through when the sustainable business advisor left the school.
But it wasn't overwhelming... yet.
Don't get discouraged if the administration at your school denies your request, or demands huge changes in your plan - no roadblock is insurmountable - you are always justified in your mission to provide alternatives! Keeping the money in house is better for the institution overall, and people do become more aware of this as your project progresses.
There are many other ways to fund a project like this, so long as a solid plan is developed. I would even argue (but definitely not recommend) that one or two people could undertake such a project, so long as they have the majority opinion on their side, which shouldn't be too difficult if marketed correctly.
If your school has a student association similar to the one at my school, it is an invaluable resource. They are a recognized 501(c)3 non-profit organization that manages their own budget, runs the student government, provides the majority of campus entertainment and lectures, hosts all the campus clubs, and now oversees vending operations. They sacrificed their storage closet for the sodas, assisted in organizing all fiscal matters, and are even providing volunteer labor when the project is understaffed!
If your school doesn't have a student association, you might want to start one, otherwise there are often funds available through other school departments for use by students. Once you have a plan, you can also apply for grants trough both local and national organizations. Do your research!
If worse comes to worse, you can always build up from scratch - by fundraising the old fashioned way - bake sales, kissing booths, craft sales, singing telegrams, hosting sport tournaments, selling plasma, busking, making and selling nude calendars, car washes, the list goes on! Then once you have enough to buy some products, mark them up and sell them in convenient locales, or if you get enough to buy a single machine and some stock - go for it! In our first week of operations we got over $125 from one machine on a campus of about 500 students!
Step 5: It's Easier to Ask Forgiveness Than Permission...
So you (hypothetically) have the money. You make the (hypothetical) purchases - this is more complicated than it seems (hypothetically speaking). Finding storage space is key, finding a loading dock and delivery time appropriate for large deliveries can be quite difficult depending on who you work with, and preparing the locations for machines is no mean feat.
This is where the forgiveness comes in. You are most likely going to step on some toes while the business gets started - if at all possible, put your plan in action over your school's longest break, when there is the smallest number of staff members to have their routines upset by the inconvenience. This also made SVI able to have a big debut during our school's annual welcome back party, the Everybody Party.
It is imperative that as awareness of the project rises, accountability and transparency of the organization increases as well - the major point in creating a project like this is to show that the little guy (you) can offer products and services comparable to the big guy's (the existing corporations) with the added benefits of being customized to your community, boosting a more local economy, and having the freedom to make more ethical choices in consumption.
We published informational brochures https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B5gEjr1KBWAOMDlhOGEyN2MtODhhYy00MmNiLTliMzMtM2MwOTZjYWE1NWVk&hl=en&authkey=CLW-iboM and hosted ice cream float tables throughout the process to keep people interested and informed. Although we did receive some negative feedback from avid Coke enthusiasts who preferred no other option, the vast majority of responses were positive and productive. We even noted some of the former Coke drinkers buying from our machines once all was said and done!
One thing I haven't mentioned yet is the legality of owning and operating vending machines. What I know to be true might only be so in Wisconsin, so be sure to research for your local laws. We were lucky that no vending license is needed for selling pre-packaged food and drinks out of automated machines in this state. If we were selling hot coffee, fresh popcorn or homemade goodies, it would be a different story.
Step 6: Crack Open a Cold One and Have a Nice Day!
Check out the video below!
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We have a be nice policy.
Please be positive and constructive.