Beyond vending

Sensing a change toward healthier living, Mike Swanson launched AtlantisValley Foods to provide better dining options for employers and their employees.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Monona native Mike Swanson grew up in the vending world. His father started C.L. Swanson in the 1940s, and he and Swanson’s mother ran it successfully for decades until it was diversified and sold.

Years after returning from the University of Miami and working in the family business, Swanson decided to get an MBA through the Executive MBA Program at UW–Madison. “It was a transition time for me,” Swanson says. “Sometimes you grow up and spend so many years in a business or industry that you lose sight of the larger, macro world.”

His industry was changing, and Swanson’s business model responded, as well. In 2009, he started AtlantisValley Foods LLC, a business-to-business company, to provide food service for employers, offering micro markets, catering, dining contract management, and coffee/water service.

Just don’t call it a vending company. “We’re doing our darnedest to eliminate the word,” Swanson states, only half joking. We learned why in a recent conversation.

IB: How does your company differ from a traditional vending company?
The micro market concept is fairly new and offers more options, fresher foods, and healthier ways to eat, as opposed to the traditional vending machine candy and snacks, although we offer that, too.

IB: What is a micro market?
I describe it as a scaled-down convenience store or grab-and-go for larger employers. Refrigerated food and drink are behind glass doors or displayed on custom cabinetry that we provide. Employees can choose from a variety of portion sizes and options, and the perception is entirely different. We also offer hot beverage sections that provide coffees, cappuccinos, and hot chocolate to complement the merchandise.

IB: Sounds like a Kwik Trip.
It’s a very scaled-down version of Kwik Trip. As many employers are re-modeling their dining areas to make them more destination-based for employees, we’ve even helped design some spaces.

IB: Do you make your own foods?
Yes. By providing all the fresh food, we control quality and presentation of the product, which is very important and differentiates us. Our kitchen in Cottage Grove has chefs and sous chefs preparing fresh food every day, but we also have employees who work full time inside client businesses, as well, preparing meals, catering meetings, or creating themed pop-up luncheons.

Our focus is on delivering more full-featured dining options for employees. In fact, we’ve been told by some HR departments and wellness committees that they see this as an employee benefit that helps with recruiting and retention.

IB: What’s your territory?
We deliver to an area roughly 80 miles in any direction from here — Westfield to Milwaukee, to just south of the state line.

IB: Who are your customers?
Many are multiple-shift operations, like distribution centers, manufacturers, call centers, or those with weekend workers. Employees set up reloadable market cards on their own accounts and just swipe the item and their card at a self-checkout kiosk. Our merchandising area comes with cameras to deter theft, which tends to keep people honest. To-date, we’ve never had to pull a service due to theft.



IB: What’s the cost to employers?
The initial cost is zero. Employers only need to provide space — maybe 25 lineal feet at a minimum — and electricity. There are extra add-ons we can provide, of course, but we make our money on product sales.

IB: What size companies do you work with?
Typically, those with at least 150 employees to thousands.

IB: Have you been able to find employees?
We recruit well, I think, because our hours are primarily Monday through Friday, eight to five. Hospitality and restaurant employees often come to us already trained and skilled in customer service.

IB: How do the prices compare?
A sandwich, bag of chips, and soda might run between $5-$7. We also make a host of different salads, offering grains like couscous and quinoa, different breads, soups, chili, and entrees. We still offer hamburgers and hotdogs, as well, because there’s always a demand!

IB: What makes you most proud?
I’m proud of my core team of employees, including my wife, who helped me launch this company from scratch with no customers. They made the scaling and business growth possible.

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