HERMITAGE, Pa. – Dean Natural Vending is preparing to embark on a $1.3 million expansion to its new building at the LindenPointe Innovative Business Campus in Hermitage, Pa.
Dean Natural Vending relocated from Evans City, Pa., and began leasing the building at 3100 Prosperity Place in October with the intent to purchase it, says Robert Dean, CEO. The company closed on that transaction in April, purchasing it for $2.4 million. Construction materials were delivered May 14 for the 11,000-square-foot addition.
The company supplies vending machines and unstaffed retail spaces known as micro-markets, which offer a greater variety of items than the vending machines and more payment options, such as by a smart device or thumbprint.
The company operates in Lawrence, Butler, Allegheny and Washington counties. It outgrew its 3,000-square-foot Evans City site. Its plans to construct a new building in Cranberry Township were put on hold last year.
“We were going over design plans in January 2020 and here comes COVID,” Dean says. “We put the brakes on it because in Pennsylvania the governor shut down vending companies.”
The company eventually was able to get a waiver to operate because it serves several businesses in essential industries. After the first few months of the pandemic, the decision was made to buy an existing building rather than build new, with the hope of getting “a good deal” on a site, Dean says.
When executives couldn’t find a property they liked in the Cranberry-Pittsburgh area, they decided to widen their focus, he continues. Many of the company’s employees are from New Castle and the Youngstown area. Dean started his business career as an insurance agent in Hermitage.
After word got out that the company was considering sites in West Middlesex, he began getting calls notifying him that LindenPointe’s CHIP Building – a 13,000-square-foot building developed by Penn-Northwest Development Corp., the city of Hermitage and Community Hope Investment Partners – was available.
“It was a cooperative effort with the city of Hermitage and the CHIP group,” says Gary Gulla, Hermitage assistant city manager. “We worked with Dean to accommodate their needs. We’re also obviously pleased that not only did they acquire the facility and relocate here but they’re looking at a significant expansion.”
Dean says he was impressed not only with the building, which he said is “built to a very high standard of architecture,” but also with the response from community leaders, many of whom met with him the first time he came to the building. They discussed opportunities to expand into the Shenango Valley and northeastern Ohio markets, and sold him on the region as “a good place to live and do business,” he says.
Ultimately, “it just felt really good here,” he says.
Dean started the company eight years ago, following a successful career in the insurance industry. He had supervised the northeastern United States for the Hartford Financial Services Group for several years until he decided he wanted to “do something entrepreneurial,” he said.
Around the same time, family circumstances led him to want to travel less than his job required, he says.
Dean researched various businesses, but the interests of the self-confessed “foodie,” led him to the food and beverage industry. From overseeing 29,000 Hartford employees and visiting the sites where they worked, one common theme that emerged was the poor quality of the food service options.
“We’d build a $20 million facility and some guy would bring in a $200 vending machine,” he says.
The machines often were broken and dirty and lacked good automation and the offerings largely consisted of junk food. Even the food options other than the snack-type items were “just assembly line food,” Dean says.
“So I started to think about all the different things that needed to be solved. We ended up solving them all with automation, with quality of equipment and with healthier selections, and of course eventually making good custom food,” he says.
In addition to offering snack-type items, Dean Natural Vending offers prepared foods such as fettuccini alfredo with chicken cordon bleu, General Tso’s chicken and a variety of breakfast items. Even more traditional vending machine items differ from those offered by competitors, including subs that have six meats and three cheeses, he says. Prepared foods are made the afternoon before delivery.
“We custom tailor the vending machines to the wants and desires of the customer,” adds Robert Hites, vice president.
The company works with customers to determine the assortment of items and to meet specific dietary needs such as gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan items, he continues.
“We don’t just throw a bunch of stuff in there and hope they buy it,” Hites says.
Dean Natural Vending worked with its suppliers of vending machines and equipment for its micro-markets to develop technology that provides the company with real-time information about what might be needed at a customer’s location. That information is accessed on smart devices and computers and the next delivery is prepared based on that information.
“What traditional vending companies do is they send a driver out and all of their product is in their truck,” Dean says. “We can service a lot more machines in a day because we’re not riding around in big trucks hoping we have what the customers want.”
The Hermitage building now houses office space, the kitchen and the warehouse, Dean says. The 11,000-square-foot expansion, which should be completed in September, will serve different purposes. About 70% of the space will be dedicated to indoor vehicle storage for the company’s trucks as well as the racing trailer and motor home used by the company’s National Hot Rod Association drag racing team.
The remaining 30% will be used to house and receive new equipment, including vending machines, and to construct the micro-markets, which are then disassembled and rebuilt at customers’ sites.
The expansion will “give us some breathing room,” says Hites, who works with customers to design the vending spaces. “We moved into this facility and we loved it. But we knew that it still wasn’t going to be big enough.”
Dean praises the work done by Mercer County State Bank, particularly senior vice president and senior commercial lender Sarah Palmer and her team, on the $3.8 million project.
“They helped us work though a complicated financing arrangement,” he says. “They were the local bank that really stepped up.”
Dean foresees employment growing from the current 15 to nearly 45 in three years. He anticipates annual sales growing from $1.2 million to $5 million.
“There’s really no limit to how much we can grow. We think we can grow as much as we want to,” he says.
Pictured: Robert Hites and Robert Dean stand in the company’s new warehouse space.