Gumball vendor George Harris gives some gumball to Joann Kreutzberg, an employee of K-Bob’s Steakhouse, on Tuesday in Roswell. (R andal Seyler Photo)
A penny doesn’t buy much these days, but George Harris has a few places where that copper coin still has purchasing power — the classic gumball machine.
Harris, of House, N.M., was at the Roswell Kiwanis Club on Tuesday discussing his more than 40 years in the vending machine business that, at its peak, featured 1,500 vending machines spread out across southeastern New Mexico.
“I have machines all over,” Harris said. “Tucumcari, Clovis, Roswell, Lovington, Hobbs, Carlsbad, Pecos and House.”
Harris, who retired from the fire department in the 1990s, had begun his vending career as a hobby and a stream of part-time income.
“Back then, there was this deal where you could buy 12 machines for $1,200,” he said. “A lot of people did that, thinking they were going to get rich, but they wound up with those machines sitting in their garages.”
Over the years, Harris would run into people with vending machines to spare, and he would purchase them.
“A lot of times they didn’t like what I was willing to give them, but I knew the story of how they got them,” he said. “That’s how I wound up with so many machines.”
Locally, 114 of the machines are dedicated to the Kiwanis Club, and Harris donates a percentage of the sales from those machines to the club.
“Just since I have been keeping records, I have donated more than $9,600 to Kiwanis,” Harris said.
In the years prior to his record keeping, Harris estimated he had donated another $6,000 to Kiwanis.
There aren’t many penny gumball machines left in circulation, Harris said. Most machines take a dime or a quarter, and give multiple pieces of gum in return.
The modern gumball machine dates back to the Great Depression, when a vendor of peanuts wanted to find a way to sell his nuts. The gumball machine was modeled after the planting machine, and an industry was born, Harris said.
“Of course now, most vending machines are the big rack machines and they are electronic,” Harris said. “A lot of them are owned by a big corporation and they lease space in the big retail chains.”
As corporations take over, display space for the private vending machine operator is disappearing.
“In another 20 years, I don’t know that you will see vending machines,” Harris said. “Children aren’t paying attention to them anymore. Now when you see a 5- or 6-year-old, he has some kind of electronic game in his hand. He isn’t looking around the store.”
In the early days, gumball machines were subject to being cheated with the use of washers, but a pin was installed on later machines making it “washer-proof,” Harris said.
“I had one machine that didn’t have a pin and it was located in a hardware store,” he recalled. “One of the employees was using washers in my machine, but it got where the washers were worth more than the coins,” Harris added, with a laugh. “He said, ‘here, let me take care of that!’”
Harris is a distributor for the Ford Gum & Machine Co., based in Akron, N.Y. The company has been around since 1913, and for most of his career, Harris has been associated with that company.
For a while, there was a local West Texas gum company with which Harris did business, the Texas Gum Association, which developed a stainless steel gumball machine, but eventually Harris returned to doing business with Ford.
“Last year out of the 180 Ford Gum vending operators in the U.S., I was 40th,” Harris said. “It’s funny, but you seem to always make the same amount of money every month.”
Particular locations may be popular for a while, then that machine will slow down and another location will pick up in business, Harris said.
“You never can tell where a machine is going to be popular, but they change. Sometimes its when they hire new people.”
Having machines in local franchise restaurants can be challenging, especially when they have staff turnover.
“One week you’re fine, then they get a new manager and they tell you to take your machine out,” Harris said. “Then two weeks later, there’s another new manager and he says ‘come on in!’”
Keeping up with maintenance on all the machines and the gasoline it takes to drive around checking on them is also an expense that eats into the business, Harris said.
Now Harris has 800 machines operating throughout the region and keeping them filled and operating keeps him busy. Some of his machines also dispense toys, but there was the lead paint scare so all the toys had to be certified safe.
Gumballs have little moisture and lots of sugar, so they are not good environments for viruses or germs to live on, which is why gumball machines are still allowed to exist after all these years, Harris said.
“The only way they can be contaminated is if someone touches them with dirty hands,” he said.
Within Harris’ company, there are a few big bank machines, but the majority of his vending machines are the simple coin machines. But as time passes, Harris says he sees the day of the mechanical vending machine coming to an end.
“Everything is going to computers and electronics,” Harris said. “Pretty soon, you’ll have to swipe your credit card if you want a gumball.”