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Enterprising Spirit: Allied Vending keeps workers fed during long days

Derek and Tia Dubois, owners of Allied Vending, at a warehouse in Spokane Valley on Tuesday, August, 12.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

A lot of things have changed about the average day at the office in the past few months. But one thing remains constant through busy days and slow weeks: at some point in a workday afternoon or a hectic late night on the job, you will want a snack.

That’s where Allied Vending comes in. The company installs, services and refills over 500 vending machines from Spokane to Newport and Coeur d’Alene to Bonners Ferry, said owner Derek DuBois.

“Small local businesses are what we do,” DuBois said, “because that’s really what we are too.”

At its warehouses in Spokane Valley and Sagle, DuBois said, Allied Vending’s day-to-day routine hasn’t changed much since the pandemic began. DuBois and his wife, Tia, are the company’s only full-time employees. Normally, DuBois said, two part-time employees help with heavy lifting at the warehouses when needed, but business is slow enough these days that they’ve essentially been laid off.

As the pandemic began to shut down the Inland Northwest this spring, many of the machines DuBois services were shut away behind closed office doors. But plenty are in essential businesses like hospitals, and the machines provided essential services of their own during shutdowns, DuBois said.

Vending kept steady or saw an uptick in those places because employees needed a way to stave off hunger on the job without taking the risks of visiting crowded grocery stores or restaurants, DuBois said. Allied Vending has been there every step of the way, providing individualized service that can’t be matched by bigger corporations, according to DuBois.

“We’re one of the few around here that are locally owned,” DuBois said. “But we can’t compete with the big ones – we don’t try to or want to, really. We just mirror the companies we work with.”

DuBois saw the writing on the wall early this year, he said. He heard of mask shortages as early as January in the medical facilities he works with and knew the novel coronavirus would become a bigger problem than many industries anticipated at that time.

“So we prepared for the worst, and we’ve been able to stick it out OK for this long because of it,” DuBois said.

That’s not to say the vending business has been without its troubles. The company has seen its own supply shortages this year – specifically, canned soda, DuBois said. Many popular soda flavors are near-impossible to find these days – including Diet Coke – which has caused some controversy among its most dedicated fans, Dubois said.

According to DuBois, the word in vending industry circles is that beer consumption has increased so sharply among bored quarantiners, it’s caused a shortage of cans for soda. He can’t confirm that, but he does say it’s causing a bit of a “glitch in the flow.” According to a July article in USA Today, the shortage is being attributed to more people drinking canned beverages at home, rather than fountain beverages in restaurants. That’s led to plans to build three new aluminum can factories during the next 18 months.

And while many of the essential businesses he works with are going strong, DuBois said some of his biggest accounts have closed.

While he doesn’t think this spells the end of Allied Vending, DuBois anticipates a “real long comeback” for his business, too.

“These are the businesses that run the Northwest,” DuBois said. “And we’re grateful for them for keeping us running along with them.”