MILAN – Rhea Vendors Group, established in 1960, is one of the largest producers of customized vending machines in the world. With headquarters and manufacturing based in the province of Varese and 12 foreign branches, Rhea Vendors is “proud of having spread coffee culture to over 90 countries around the world”. We took a close look at this company and its future business prospects with the CEO of Rhea Vendors Group Andrea Pozzolini.
Rhea Vendors was the first Italian manufacturer of vending machines, a pioneer in the sector
Rhea Vendors is a company that has always thought ahead, investing in experimentation and technology. We are proud not only to have been pioneers in the vending industry, but also of being respected in the marketplace for 60 years of innovation, design and customization. We started by producing the first gumball dispenser, an undisputed icon of the Sixties. Later on, we were the first Italian manufacturer to present a complete range of dispensers for hot and cold drinks and snacks. In 1970 the E410 espresso maker was the first vending machine to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1975, the E100 was the first automatic tabletop machine. More recently, always in that same pioneering spirit, we’ve been exploring new technologies aimed at achieving greater energy, environmental, and economic sustainability, at improving the man-machine relationship, and above all at product quality.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Rhea Vendors. What’s it like celebrating such an important milestone in such a difficult year?
We had to give up the idea of any sort of celebratory event with customers, partners, and employees. The pandemic forced us to revise our plans, but it also stimulated us to create a digital project that capitalizes on the past to invest in the future, a project where we give voice to the international cultural and business worlds. We know who we are and the role we want to continue to play at a time when certain processes of change are accelerating.
Thanks to 60 years of experience, Rhea has proven that we have the determination, the desire and the ideas to react. This is why we have not blocked any of the investments we consider vital: we are confident that this planning will be the engine that will enable us to move past this difficult moment and to restart at the right time and speed. The past is where the future plants its roots is our mantra, and our campaign The Heritage of Tomorrow is our way of celebrating 60 years of history with an eye to the future.
Tell us your views on the evolution of the vending machine from the ‘60s to today
It’s an evolution driven by new technologies and new social behaviors. For Rhea it was above all an evolution towards an ever higher level of customization, in which both innovation and design were key factors. The three elements of Rhea’s production strategy – tailor-made, technology, and design – are what make our machines able to satisfy every customer’s specific needs and to fit perfectly into the environment in which they are placed. “No Rhea machine is impersonal, but created to satisfy the different tastes of customers around the world and offer quality drinks” is an observation often made by Carlo Doglioni Majer, son of the founder Aldo and head of Rhea from the early ‘00s to his passing in 2018.
How do you respond to the cliché of bad coffee from vending machines?
Coffee quality has always been one of Rhea’s strengths, and we approach it on two fronts. First of all, we use proprietary technologies such as Variplus which, thanks to the precision grinding, temperature control, and the efficiency and flexibility of the coffee group, enables us to achieve excellent in-cup quality. Secondly, we collaborate continuously with Italian and international coffee and food-design experts like Chiara Bergonzi, Nana Holthaus-Vehse, Matteo Beluffi and Paolo Barichella, who help us develop recipes to ensure the highest possible quality in the cup. Our mission is to produce technologically advanced and beautifully designed machines, but above all to maximize the level of quality and therefore of pleasure that can be experienced from a well-crafted drink.
Is your market more geared to Italy or to foreign markets?
We export coffee culture around the world. The production is 100% Italian, but we’ve always had an international vocation. In fact, today we have 12 foreign branches and customers in over 90 countries. The foreign markets appreciate Rhea for the level of service guaranteed by our deep knowledge of each market, which wouldn’t be possible without our subsidiaries and international partners. But what distinguishes Rhea on the market above all is our commitment to supply tailor-made machines, which for us means, as I said before, not only designing them to accommodate the place where the machine is to be placed, but also the ability to deliver the drinks most appropriate to the habits and tastes of the local consumer.
What are Rhea Vendors’ signature products and services?
The variety of the product range is our strength, we produce everything from tabletop machines for the OCS and HORECA markets to freestanding machines for hot and cold drinks and snacks, all highly customizable for different markets.
To complete the product range, we’ve developed the CoCo concept, which stands for Coffee and Cold, a combination of two machines, one for cold drinks and one for hot drinks, designed to be installed together, offering not just coffee and water but flavored drinks made from extracts and concentrates.
Various accessories are also available, like the one for preparing beverages with fresh milk.
But we definitely stand out on the market for offering services and solutions that respond to the needs of a world whose consumption habits and lifestyles are constantly evolving, and this reshapes the spaces in which we live and work.
The recognition of these changes led us to present the laRhea Goes Coffee Shop concept in 2019, a proposal that harmoniously combines new consumer trends with the world of automation in a flexible context of tailor-made solutions, respectful of both the environment in which they are inserted and the expectations of different consumers: from design and functionality to digital and automation technologies, but primarily the quality of the product and the level of service.
This high degree of customization allows clients to face the challenges of different sites of consumption, each with its own particularities, from large-scale distribution and hotels to micro-markets and co-working spaces.
We offer technology and design on which, together with the customer, we devise the best response to the needs that the machine must satisfy in a specific environment and for a specific consumer.
And now with Covid, how are things going? Will smart working kill vending?
The vending sector is inevitably impacted by the limited circulation of people in offices, in sports or entertainment venues, airports, shopping centers. But every critical situation also offers opportunities. It’s all about helping our clients serve their consumers where they happen to be today and where they’ll be going in the short term.
I’m referring to co-working spaces, for example, and to how operators in the food & beverage sector can implement new catering services, whether for coffee breaks or meals, leveraging the lower costs of automation while guaranteeing the same level of quality. We have already been working in this direction since even before the pandemic. For example, together with top Italian design and industry 4.0 partners, we’ve been selected by Hi-Hack for MIND (Milano Innovation District) to give our contribution to research on new consumption models. So, we’re experiencing the current moment with enthusiasm, thanks to the strong creative drive generated by the desire and need to change our lifestyles
How could the Think Together project help the sector?
We created RheaThinkTogether with the aim of providing a stimulating environment and to offer new impulses not only to the vending sector but to the entire business world. In fact, we believe that the cross-contamination of different worlds is an essential condition for meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow. Rhea’s digital lounge, thanks to the contribution of the participants, is a catalyst for creativity, an added value for the market and for people’s quality of life. By participating in this platform, we will all have the opportunity to enrich ourselves, to collect ideas that can become concrete projects. We don’t just give people tools to use with one click. We open the doors of our home, of our living room, where we can all share experiences and ideas. We create the opportunity to speak out, and everyone is invited to contribute. This is the goal, this is the commitment that the company has made with Think Together.
What is your vision for the future of the vending market?
The digital revolution has forced major changes on society and business, and this should drive the strategy of vending manufacturing. But we also have the responsibility to be educators of a new way of conceiving automatic distribution. Let me explain. The future of vending does not only play on the technological aspect, on increased automation and sustainability, but above all on recognizing that vending is not merely about satisfying the need for 24h availability, but about offering quality and value. Nowadays, we can get a coffee from a machine as good as the one at the bar, or we can enjoy a plate of lasagna with a simple click that’s as tasty as what you get in a restaurant.
This is why we believe that the evolution of vending will be an evolution across the board, of new consumer experiences capable of increasing quality at 360°, and of expansion into new markets. Basically, alongside technological innovation, an even more fundamental change is taking place: the evolution of the man-machine relationship. The boundaries defined by the classic definition of vending to which we have been accustomed no longer exist, and this opens up new and diversified scenarios.