A mask vending machine in the Church Street Marketplace? Here’s how it got there

A vending machine located on Leahy Way in downtown Burlington sells a variety of face masks and hand sanitizers, selling between $1 to $3.

People walking through the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington over the last two weeks may have noticed an unusual sight: an outdoor vending machine on a side street off the pedestrian mall. 

The vending machine sells face masks and hand sanitizer to marketplace visitors who may find themselves unprepared amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So, how did it get there? 

Meeting community need

Burlington resident and small business owner Sam Lai brought the idea to the Church Street Marketplace staff and to the city’s Community Economic Development Office (CEDO) several months ago.

Lai said he didn’t intend to make much money from selling masks and sanitizer — in fact, he doubts he’ll even break even by the end of his temporary endeavor. He just saw a community need. 

“I’ve seen the vending machines down in the big city, and I thought it was a good idea to make it convenient for the locals,” said Lai, a 20-year Burlington resident. “They require masks to go inside the store, but they don’t sell the masks on the street, so how could you go inside the store if you can’t purchase a mask?”

Church Street Marketplace Executive Director Kara Alnasrawi said the idea appealed to her because it served two important purposes: it supported community public health and it helped a minority small business owner who was struggling during the pandemic.

Alnasrawi said it would encourage people who are on Church Street after retail businesses close — including college students coming back to town — to socialize safely.

“I really applaud someone like him and his entrepreneurial spirit to pivot to another revenue source for him that also complements our need for public safety,” she said of Lai. 

Vending machine idea came several months earlier

Alnasrawi said Lai reached out to CEDO first with his idea. Will Clavelle, CEDO’s projects and policy specialist, said he just acted as a connector between Lai and the Church Street Marketplace. At the time, Burlington’s City Council had passed a resolution requiring people to wear masks in Burlington businesses.

A vending machine off of Church St. in downtown Burlington sells facial masks and hand sanitizer.

Over the past several months, Lai said he worked to establish his business, get proper insurance and stock his machine. He collaborated with Alnasrawi’s office to determine the machine’s location, since it needed electricity. 

Two weeks ago, the machine was officially set up against a wall along Leahy Way, which leads from Church Street to one of the city’s parking garages. Its official establishment came around the same time that Gov. Phil Scott declared a statewide mask mandate. 

What’s in the machine?

The machine sells small bottles of hand sanitizer for $2 apiece, and various masks ranging from $1 to $3. Lai said making money on the products was not his overall intention, so the markups on what he paid for the products are between 50% and 70%. He said he doesn’t think he’ll make the money back that he spent on the machine itself and on insurance. 

“My goal wasn’t to try to make a living off of it,” Lai said. “The whole intention is convenience for the people.” 

Sign plastered on vending machine along Church Street in downtown Burlington.

Lai said the machine on the marketplace is the only one he has so far. However, he said he’d be interested in helping other towns or businesses establish similar machines.

In the end, Lai said he just wants to help Vermont keep its low COVID-19 spread rate and keep his neighbors safe. 

“I’m happy that the numbers are very small and we’ve got the best numbers in the whole country,” Lai said cases of COVID-19 in Vermont. “I’m really hoping to keep it that way.”

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.

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