Not such a pie-in-the-sky idea for Fisher and Donaldson

Ben Milne, the brains behind Fisher and Donaldson's bakery vending machine
Ben Milne, the brains behind Fisher and Donaldson’s bakery vending machine

Fisher and Donaldson is a St Andrews institution. For five generations, they have been providing the people of Fife with floury bread rolls, hot pastries and of course, the famous fudge doughnuts. But just because they are almost 100 years old doesn’t mean that they are afraid to try new and innovative ways to sell their products. It is their latest idea, a 24-hour hot food vending machine, that has recently become the talk of the town. The machine, which is temporarily located beside their shop on Church Street, dispenses a range of hot and cold food including scotch pies, macaroni, stovies, bacon rolls and fudge doughnuts 24 hours a day.

The man behind the machine, production manager Ben Milne, came up with the idea after he spotted a cupcake vending machine during a shopping trip in Glasgow: “I sat, being a baker, for two hours and watched it to see if people were buying from it and I think they sold something like four cupcakes in two hours, and I thought: ‘That’s just not making any money’. My wife came back and said: ‘Well it’s because they should be trying to sell hot sausage rolls and pies. Who wants to buy a cupcake out of a vending machine?'”

Ben began to realise the appeal of a vending machine, especially for the students in the town. His wife, a former physics student, had lived on sausage rolls to help get her through her degree and they even played a part in their relationship. “At the physics department there was a cafe and it sold hot sausage rolls. When we met and she found out that I made the sausage rolls, she said: ‘I’m going to marry you.'”

After he got home from Glasgow, Ben searched on the internet for a hot food vending machine and found that they are actually quite popular in Holland and Spain. A couple of days later, a machine arrived at the Fisher and Donaldson headquarters. Working in a busy bakery, Ben put it to the back of his mind but recently decided that he wanted to get it up and running. Within a few weeks, the machine had been redesigned and Ben had worked out the perfect temperatures to make sure each of the products were still of a high quality.

A few weeks ago he trialled the machine outside the St Andrews shop, hoping it would offer an alternative for those looking for a snack during the early hours of the morning. It proved to be extremely popular: “There wasn’t a whole lot of sales on that first night but that evening and the next day, Overheard in St Andrews went manic and on the Saturday night every single thing was gone. We filled it up again on the Sunday morning and I thought it wasn’t going to sell much on a Sunday night but actually it was nearly sold out on the Sunday night as well.”

[pullquote]“At the physics department, there was a cafe and it sold hot sausage rolls. When we met and she found out that I made the sausage rolls, she said: ‘I’m going to marry you.'”[/pullquote]

The machine is filled every day to make sure that the products are fresh and tasty. Through trial and error, Ben has been able to decide on the most popular products and estimates what will sell each day to try and prevent too much waste. Items are placed on trays inside the machine and are then dropped into a microwave oven and reheated before the door opens and the customer can take their snack away. Some of the products, such as the bacon rolls, are even pre-made with brown or red sauce.

The machine currently sells 15 items but Ben has already started thinking about changing the menu around: “We were thinking that it would be hot sausage rolls and stovies and macaroni that would be the most popular. The stovies and macaroni do sell out but the sausage rolls have not been as popular as the pies. Once it’s settled down a bit I will start changing the menu around because I don’t want people to get menu fatigue. I think that list will come from 15 down to about 10… I’ll maybe even put a suggestion box.” It’s the traditional products that seem to be the best sellers. Ben says the fudge doughnuts, for example, have gone from occupying one tray to two inside the machine and he estimates that it sells around 20 a day during the week and around 40 over the weekend.

Fisher and Donaldson is a business that is built on tradition and they are proud of their long history. Ben explained that it is still very much a family business: “It was started by my great-great-great uncles and my great grandfather was orphaned to one of them… Then it passed to my grandfather. He is still alive and he still comes in and stirs things up a bit. My dad and my uncle are the directors at the moment. I am the manager and when they retire, I will become a director. My son is only a year old but I would be happy for him to come into the family business.”

With such a long history, there were worries that this new idea might upset some of their more traditional customers and be appreciated only by students, but there has been a very positive response: “We have done things in the past like we changed the font on the sign in Cupar and we got people coming into the shop and saying: ‘We don’t approve of that.’ The vending machine, however, is different. Yesterday when I was getting interviewed, an old man came up to me and I thought I was going to to get my ear chewed but he said: ‘A fantastic idea but I just don’t know if drunk people are going to manage to type in one of those codes.'”

The machine has came under some criticism from local councillor Brian Thomson, however, who worried that it did not fit in with the historic character of the town. He told The Saint: “I first became aware of the vending machine by someone posting a photo of it on Facebook and, having subsequently viewed it, I am very surprised to see it located in such a prominent location. I am sure it will be appreciated by some people looking for something to eat on the way home from a night out, but it’s completely inappropriate in the St Andrews conservation area, where a lot of effort goes into maintaining the character of the overall streetscape. I have raised the matter with the Council’s planners, and they are looking into whether or not it requires planning permission.”

The Council has since clarified that the machine does not need planning permission and Ben has defended the look of the machine and the idea behind it: “I hand on heart feel that it looks nice… It has been designed with a vintage feel… If I was simply to open my shop for 24 hours, there would be very little comment. No one would think it was very novel or interesting or have very many complaints about it. All I’ve done is allow myself to have a 24-hour bakery but without having to be there at 1 o’clock on a Saturday morning. In terms of what the concept is, it isn’t really that far removed.”

Following the comments by Mr Thomson, the story hit the national press and the idea of a pie vending machine has attracted a response from across the world. Ben told me:

“Someone commented on the Daily Mail that ‘this could only happen in Scotland.’ She was from Toronto and I said: ‘Do you not have fast food joints in Canada?’ Pie and a sausage roll used to be seen as the most unhealthy thing that you could have, until fast food burgers and kebabs and greasy things came along. These are handmade, there are no preservatives and in terms of a fast food, a scotch pie is a healthier option than your kebab … I am not trying to say a pie is healthy but it is the lesser of the two evils. It is 100% beef and there are no preservatives – it’s just salt, pepper and mince.”

Looking to the future, Ben admits that the current position in front of the former Pots and Pans shop is only temporary. Having observed the success of the machine he is now working on finding a more permanent home and may even expand the idea: “Either we are going to get something mechanically powered that we could put underneath it and it will drive itself … so it is easy to drive up the close, or a bit more scary is to cut a section out of the front of our MacArthur shop so it is a permanent part of the front of the shop. There are other places in town that we could put it. The Union actually emailed us at the very beginning and they said they were quite interested in the idea. It may be that I end up approaching them and putting it in the car park or something like that.”

There may be plans for more 24-hour machines in other locations. Following the popularity of the machine among the student population of St Andrews, Ben thinks that the market for this idea might lie in other university towns: “I think if I can broker a deal with a [students’] union – Dundee, Edinburgh – those are the sort of places that it would be really popular.”


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