We’ve all been there. You finish up a great trip, and as you arrive at the airport the realization hits: You forgot to pick up a gift for that special someone. Panic sets in, and your wallet cries at the thought of buying an airport-priced T-shirt or dashboard bobblehead made in China.
Tiffany King and Suzanne Southard know that struggle all too well. It inspired the two Kansas City women to launch their company, SouveNEAR, in November 2014.
SouveNEAR offers airport travelers the opportunity to buy locally made art, gourmet food and other artisan items while waiting for their flights. The twist? Travelers purchase these items from a vending machine.
“We just felt like this really resonated with both of us because we had both been travelers and found it really hard to find souvenirs at the last minute,” King said. “Vending machines made sense to us — they’ve got a smaller footprint and lower overhead.”
King said the pair didn’t start out on their venture with vending machines in mind. Instead, it was a creative solution to a problem they faced as they spent a year planning and researching their business model.
“In some ways, it was an afterthought. Rent cost seemed prohibitive to us,” King said. “We had an ‘A-ha!’ moment when we said, ‘Why don’t we try vending machines in airports?’”
Added Southard: “It was just a creative thought. It was a solution to our problem, which was how to get these lovely … products to our customers with these limited resources.”
Southard said their initial goal with the vending machines was to try out a small footprint while successfully attracting new customers for local artists.
SouveNEAR now operates in six venues and four states: Kansas City International Airport in Kansas City; Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey; Oakland International Airport in Oakland, California; the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco, California; the Courtyard by Marriott in Emeryville, California; and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
The entrepreneurial pair met and became friends in 2012. They founded their company in Kansas City two years later, initially placing one machine outside security checkpoints at Kansas City International Airport before quickly obtaining permission to expand into the secure area.
“Certainly, we have to work with the airport and TSA to coordinate. That makes it more complicated,” King said of servicing and restocking the machines.
King was a real estate agent before starting SouveNEAR with Southard, who previously worked in retail management. Southard said she and King don’t consider themselves to be artists, although they each say they create various types of art on the side.
The duo finds their featured artists using a variety of methods, including recommendations from their local SouveNEAR managers who oversee the machines. The machines sell anything that will fit inside them and can be dropped without breaking — think T-shirts, jewelry, prints, fine art and packaged gourmet food.
“As we’ve grown in our cities, we certainly have artists that come to us via other artists,” Southard said.
After debuting SouveNEAR in Kansas City, King and Southard knew they wanted to expand the company nationally.
“We knew going in that our plan was to make a national brand with things made in those local places. So we wanted to get coast-to-coast to establish that national idea,” Southard said, adding that early on the two attracted significant national press coverage of their company.
That attention prompted a variety of people interested in bringing SouveNEAR to their cities to contact King and Southard.
One of those people was Betsy Wolf, who emailed King and Southard in June 2015 to inquire about bringing the SouveNEAR machines to San Francisco and Oakland. Wolf had moved from Kansas City to the Bay Area about 20 years ago so that both she and her husband could work at the headquarters of PeopleSoft, a software development company. She eventually stopped working when the couple had children.
Wolf said she loved the SouveNEAR idea and wanted to get in on the ground level as a way to reenter the workforce and do something she enjoyed. Wolf became an equity partner in the company and now manages its West Coast operations.
“I read every article and everything I could about them and came up with a list of questions — I knew they wanted to expand but hadn’t,” Wolf said. She chuckled as she recalled her husband suggesting that she pare down her 70 questions to her top 10 before the three women had their initial phone conversation.
Wolf said they had a “lovely” time on the phone, and the rest was entrepreneurial history.
“There was so much energy and excitement,” Wolf said. “They came out in December 2015 to California, and they stayed with me, and we spent three to four days going around to all these places.”
In April 2016, SouveNEAR began with two vending machines placed in San Francisco. A month later, Wolf wrote a successful proposal that enabled SouveNEAR to place vending machines inside the Oakland International Airport.
“I am just so blessed and thankful, and I adore working with them and what I do — it’s just a fun job, I can’t really call it a job — it’s a passion,” Wolf said. “ … The three of us bring different strengths to the company, and it works so well and they have been terrific to work with.”
SouveNEAR launched operations in the New York/New Jersey area with machines in the Newark Airport in October 2018 and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area with machines in the Cincinnati Airport in February 2019.
King and Southard said they’ve received positive feedback from SouveNEAR’s customers, who sometimes go online and order more products from the company after making their initial purchase.
“Certainly, people post on social media, or we hear directly from them,” Southard said.
The machines, depending on the region, are restocked about once a week.
“We were not at all familiar with vending machines before,” King said. “I would say we started this at a time that [worked for them]. Our business would not have been possible just a few years earlier.”
By this she means that they use newer technology to track credit card transactions in real time and keep track of their stock remotely.
As for the machines themselves, King and Southard have learned a lot about the technology that has been around since the early 1880s.
They said vending machines are equipped with varying degrees of capabilities — from stripped-down basic to the highest tech. Before opening SouveNEAR, the two had to figure out how to prioritize how they spent their business funds.
“We found ways to customize our machine as far as our products, and we found a happy medium for us with the level of tech that suits our needs,” Southard said. “The machines are reconfigured snack machines, so the spacing is about the same for the items.”
Their machines are custom-built; however, SouveNEAR team members do reconfigure the machines from time to time in order to change out the depth or width of the machine’s offerings.
King and Southard decided to initially bootstrap their company. While their profits have been “very slim thus far,” King and Southard said they have chosen to be wholly focused on expanding and reinvesting heavily in the company’s growth.
They both agree, however, that if they were doing it all over again, they would have started the business with investment already in place to allow for broader expansion sooner.
“It’s just slower and harder. We didn’t have funding early on. We’ve bootstrapped us to this point, and it was more challenging than [we] expected,” Southard said.
At the end of 2018, they acquired two small equity partners in addition to Wolf. They’ve recently launched a crowd-investment campaign through Wefunder, the crowdfunding portal that connects startups with online investors.
They have plans to expand SouveNEAR into additional airports as well. They aren’t ready to discuss locations, but they did say they’re finalizing contracts.
Todd Zimmer, the “Scoville Dictator” at Zims Sauces LLC in Kansas City, is one of the artisans whose products are featured in the Kansas City International Airport vending machines.
Zimmer runs the hot sauce company with his wife and two sons, and he admits they all were a bit apprehensive about selling their sauce in a vending machine.
“We thought it could be a really good thing, but I’ve also seen things not work . . . So we were kind of half and half on if we thought it could work,” he said.
Zimmer said his business’ collaboration with SouveNEAR began when a screen printer who worked with both companies suggested to King and Southard that they put small, promotional-sized hot sauces in their machines.
“We had made some bottles of hot sauce for Seen Merch screen printing to give to their customers who had ordered a lot of stuff,” Zimmer said. Seen Merch also is located in Kansas City.
Zimmer and his family began working on packaging that would ensure the bottles wouldn’t break during the fall inside the machines. They came up with a tight-fitting box with a quarter-inch of foam-core padding at the bottom.
By October 2017, the 2-ounce sauces (sold in a two-pack for $11) were in the machines, and SouveNEAR would soon become Zims Sauces’ No. 1 retailer. Within six months, Zims Sauces had made back the money it initially spent to create the specialized boxes.
The company now sells between 48 and 72 bottles each month out of the vending machines alone.
“I think SouveNEAR is really a cool idea. For 10 years, I traveled coast to coast every other week, and you see how many people buy stuff or want a memento. I also brought stuff back for my kids, so there’s definitely a market for people who want something local. I thought it was really cool to retrofit a vending machine with things actually made locally,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer said that while all cities have something great to offer, he loves that the Kansas City artisan culture is particularly supportive of its members. He said he’s noted a natural tendency among artisans there to help each other out, as well as a prevailing attitude that it’s not success for one unless they all succeed.
He said King and Southard embody that idea.
“We really enjoy working with SouveNEAR; it’s certainly been good for us, seeing as they are our biggest retailer,” he said. “They are super-sweet people.”
Ardis Englezos, who owns and operates Snake Oil KC in Kansas City, echoed Zimmer’s experience with SouveNEAR. She sells custom gin labs and tea labs so that customers can create their own seasonally flavored beverages.
She, too, had to engineer new packaging to accommodate the machine.
“The packaging that we figured out works better than my original packaging because customers can see what is all in there,” Englezos said, noting that she and Zimmer worked together because their products are packaged so similarly.
That packaging was so successful — showing the customer what was inside without having to explain the concept — that Englezos now is switching over all of her packaging to the clear box she developed for SouveNEAR.
“It’s a little bit like a puzzle because they have to fit right in the machine, and my product is a little bit different because people don’t quite understand what it is without an explanation,” she said.
King and Southard found Englezos at a craft show, which previously had been her main method of selling the beverage kits.
“They discovered me a few years ago and immediately wanted me to be a vendor for them. We started with gin kits, and then they asked to do some other kits as well,” Englezos said, adding that now SouveNEAR is her biggest retail account. She fills orders for the company about once a month.
“It’s pretty exciting for me because of the reorders — it shows me people are interested in [her kits] and they’re going fast,” she said.
SouveNEAR now sells almost all of her products, which also can be found in a few boutiques around Kansas City.
As for working with King and Southard, she said they’ve helped her from the start of their collaboration when she was just figuring out her product’s new packaging for the machines.
“They really like to create a relationship. From my experience, they cater to the vendors — they really don’t want to inconvenience anyone,” she said. “They’ve been very approachable in that way —making sure we work well together and everything is okay on my end.”
To view or purchase SouveNEAR’s products online, visit store.souvenear.com