Business to watch: CPNJ Vending is bringing vegan choices to a vending machine near you

Imagine you’re at your desk at work. It’s 3 p.m., and those mid-afternoon hunger pains strike. What do you do if you don’t have snacks on hand?

For many people, a vending machine is a convenient, albeit unhealthy, choice.

The Howard kids are involved in the family business.Reesha Howard and her family of six are disrupting that paradigm with their made vending machines offering low-calorie, plant-based snacks to consumers.

Fort Wayne-based CPNJ Vending (a nod to the Howard kids' initials) is a venture that launched this year designed to marry convenience with health. And its health-focused business model is already poised to take the country by storm. The team has even caught the attention of the website LIVEKINDLY, which is devoted to "producing engaging content on sustainable and compassionate living." 

As that article explains, plant-based eating is on the rise nationwide, and experts predict the trend has staying power.

But for Howard, the business concept is also personal. She made the transition to a plant-based lifestyle herself about a year ago in an effort to ease her breastfed son’s symptoms. 

“On July 2nd of last year, we were watching the documentary 'What the Health,' and I was holding my baby,” she says. “He had open lesions on his face, a case of extreme eczema. His skin would literally crack and bleed. It was absolutely horrible. At the same time, I was hearing all these things (about how dairy and eggs can cause inflammation). And I was like, ‘You know what, I have nothing to lose (by making the transition).’ So I made the decision to go vegan cold turkey, starting July 3rd.”

Within a few weeks her son's skin had cleared up, and she reported health benefits, too. So Howard decided to make the changes permanent.

Today, her family of six eats a mainly plant-based diet, she reports. To that end, the concept behind CPNJ aligns with the family's lifestyle in more ways than one.

Howard and her husband, Ron, who both hail from Chicago originally, have been entrepreneurs for nearly a decade. Together, they own and operate Game Day Sports Camp, which offers sports, recreational, and character-building experiences in the summer for kids of all ages. Howard is also a REALTOR® with Mike Thomas Associates.

The Howards are getting local and national media attention.

In other words, problem-solving is in their blood. Case in point: Howard noticed that kids at the summer camp would show up with money on hand, ready to buy snacks from the vending machines on site. But after her family made the transition to a plant-based diet, it was hard to find options for her kids, when they were on the go. So she did what any resourceful entrepreneur would do: Took to the internet to research the landscape. 

“I started doing my research, and I found that there were some similar concepts abroad,” she says. “But there was nothing that I could find anywhere in the Midwest, much less in the state of Indiana, and I was like: 'Why doesn't this exist?'’

Ron agreed there was a market, and they were just the people to fill that niche. Howard says they purchased their first machine that week and went into business about three weeks later. Their first machine was placed at Dupont Hospital. Additional machines are going into Parkview Health system next month. 

A post from CPNJ Vending's Instagram page

Howard says while that while CPNJ Vending isn't focusing exclusively on the healthcare market going forward, the response from that community has been encouraging.

“It’s funny how it worked out because our initial target market was obviously going to be vegans everywhere,” she says. “But it seems that the demand from hospital settings is strong because, if people are (there), they are either suffering from an ailment or they're visiting someone they love, who is healing from something. So it makes perfect sense because the last thing you want to do is give them something that's going to cause further concerns.” 

While Howard is tight-lipped about the details of future growth due to pending deals, she offers some clarity. For instance, CPNJ plans to base their offerings according to the needs of the venue.

For example, a facility catering to diabetic patients might have a demand for low-sugar snacks, she says. Others might request gluten-free choices. They also want to work with as many local businesses as possible.

Howard says Crossroads Kombucha is currently in the mix, and they plan to bring on Bukal Beverage Co. as well. 

Regardless of the direction the business takes, Howard says they won’t compromise on their values. 

“We're in this interesting space where we have to step through every door that opens for us, as long as it's the right door, but not too quickly," she says. "We want to preserve the integrity of the fact that this is our family (business). We will retain ownership, and we don't want to just do things with money being the only focus.”

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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