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The King of vending

Canteen's Charles G. King Sr. receives national honor

Canteen's Charles G. King Sr. receives national honor

February 13, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

In the food and drink vending business - Charles G. King Sr.'s line of work the last 51 years - there isn't much credit.

"It's a good cash flow business," he said. "I get the money before you get the product."

Then came the December issue of Automatic Merchandiser, a national trade magazine, in which credit was heaped on King.

King - the president of Hagerstown Canteen Food & Vending Service on Governor Lane Boulevard near Williamsport - was chosen as the magazine's Vending Operator of the Year.

"It's quite an honor to know that my peer group feels that I must be an OK guy," said King, 75. "The fact that I've stuck around 50 years means I must have been successful."

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Automatic Merchandiser covers the vending and office coffee service trades, Managing Editor Stacey Meacham said. It has about 16,000 subscribers.

Each year, readers pick the best people in a variety of specialties, she said. The winners are announced in December.

King said his work at times might be complicated, but his success isn't.

"It's a people business and you try to accommodate your customers," he said.

Hagerstown Canteen fills, repairs and maintains vending machines in parts of Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Its machines offer prepared meals, pastries, candy bars and various snacks, plus coffee, soda and juice.

"The secret to this business is service," King said. "A Hershey bar is a Hershey bar."

So, it's up to Canteen - or other vending companies; King said it's a competitive industry - to do more.

Keep the machines filled, clean and in good working order. Be courteous and thank the customer.

There also are helpful practices to guide you.

King said he learned to put the worst-selling candy bar on the right side of the vending machine.

Most people are right-handed. If they don't know what they want, they let their right hand fall to the closest lever and pull it, he said.

King said auto parts businessman Nathaniel Leverone wasn't thinking about any of that about 80 years ago - until a Hershey chocolate bar machine swallowed his coins and gave him nothing in return.

Leverone wrote a letter asking for his money back, then bought a vending machine and added an innovation: a coin return.

He started the Canteen Vending Co. in 1929, according to a company history.

The Washington County franchise of Canteen started in 1936.

Also in 1936, King's stepfather, Carl Farmer, moved his family from Bristol, Va. - where he ran a grocery store and lunch counter - to Baltimore.

King said Farmer had allowed his grocery customers to buy on credit. That worked well, until the Depression came and no one had money to settle debts.

As a side business, Farmer created a rug-cleaning solution that he sold door to door. Business picked up when he moved to Baltimore.

King didn't expect a career in vending in 1953, when he had a new job with Baltimore Gas & Electric.

A friend told him about an opportunity with Canteen. King wasn't interested until he heard about the pay: $104 a week, about twice what he was earning.

King said he knew he needed better pay because his wife was pregnant and had stopped working.

He recalled early difficulties at Canteen, lugging 50 or 60 pounds of crackers, nuts and candy from factory to factory, sometimes up flights of stairs. His back was worn and achy.

"The money kept me going. ... After two or three years, I decided it was a good company and that there was an opportunity for advancement," he said.

King worked four years for Canteen in Baltimore.

Then, he became a national supervisor out of the Chicago headquarters, traveling around the country to inspect operations. That also lasted four years.

Next, King spent four years running a Canteen branch in the heart of New York City.

In the 1960s, Woody Harner owned the Canteen franchise in Washington County. He knew King from his travels and invited him to work here.

King was reluctant, but said he would accept if he could own part of the business. The men worked out a deal for King to be the local manager and buy up to 49 percent of the business.

King accepted and moved here in 1967.

He said he and Harner got along famously as partners and never fought.

Harner died around 1991 and King bought the remainder of the business.

King said a great deal has changed during his career.

Canteen no longer stocks machines with nickel candy bars, penny nuts and penny gum.

Today, Canteen vending machines - using The Herald-Mail's lunchroom as an example - might have soda for $1 a bottle and coffee, tea or soup for 55 cents a cup (40 cents for the smaller size).

Another machine might drop a bag of potato chips for 75 cents, a chocolate bar for 70 cents or a pack of gum for 45 cents.

A refrigerated vending machine might sell a chicken salad sandwich for $1.75 or a double cheeseburger for $2.50.

King said there are numerous foods, flavors, styles and sizes for his company to stock.

A newer Canteen creation is a 17-flavor coffee machine called "Ritazza."

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