Soldotna butcher’s meat vending machine earns its chops

a meat vending machine
Echo Lake Meats owner Erick Watkins shows off the Soldotna store’s meat-dispensing vending machine. (Hunter Morrison/KDLL)

Alongside the outside wall of Echo Lake Meats in Soldotna, customers may notice the store’s newest acquisition.

The meat-dispensing vending machine dishes out a variety of products, from reindeer sticks to hamburger selections and New York steak.

“There’s a couple in Utah, and some around the country, but not too many in America yet, and definitely a new one for Alaska,” said owner Erick Watkins. “It feels weird, but think of it like a Coke machine that sells steaks and meat sticks and cheese.”

The vending machine is custom-designed for Alaska winters, enclosed by a weatherproof sensor-operated sliding-glass door. It also has an emergency release button inside the door. Unlike traditional vending machines, this one has a touch screen and sports an Echo Lake Meats design.

Watkins saw a need for the machine after noticing many of his customers work shifts that don’t always coincide with the store’s regular business hours. For those who live far from or don’t have time to stop at the grocery store, he says the machine is a convenient option.

“It gives people options to buy products that are normally not available, that saves people time,” Watkins said. “You can always thaw a hamburger out that’s in your freezer, but it tastes a lot better just to have it fresh.”

Because it handles both cooked and raw meat, Watkins says the vending machine has numerous safety protocols. If the inside of the machine gets above a safe temperature, it will automatically shut off and become inoperable to customers. It will also shut down in the event of a power outage.

“It’s a little awkward for some people to think about getting a steak out of a machine, but it’s really safe,” Watkins said.

a meat vending machine
A look inside the vending machine. (Hunter Morrison/KDLL)

Although the vending machine has only been in operation for about a month, Watkins says he’s seen more people use it than expected. Coming into the summer months, he envisions both locals and tourists using it during all hours of the day. He plans to tailor its selections to what the customers want.

In the future, Watkins hopes vending machines like these can be placed in underserved areas that don’t have convenient access to grocery stores or other amenities. As far as he knows, his vending machine is the only one like it in the state.

“Trying to help get the product to the people, versus making the people drive to the product,” Watkins said.

Echo Lake Meats is on K-Beach Road, and is open 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The store’s vending machine is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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