Meet the brains behind Austin COVID-19 vending machine

Lo Brown was working on vending machine idea months before COVID-19

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By Michael Romain

Editor

Several months ago, when beauty supply stores were closed due to the state's stay-at-home orders prohibiting non-essential business activities, a vending machine stocked with beauty products like synthetic hair bundles and satin durags inside of a liquor store in suburban Maywood provided some relief for area customers affected by the store closures.

You may be surprised to discover that Lo Brown, the woman who is the brains behind the machine, retrofits used vending machines herself and she was doing that many months before most people knew what COVID-19 was.

"I had to re-engineer the board, update it, make it accept credit cards, stuff like that," said Brown, 50, during an interview last week. "I redesigned the board that controls the machine, programmed it and made sure the beauty supplies fit inside of it."

So far, Brown said, she has two vending machines in operation. In addition to the machine in Maywood, she also has a COVID-19 vending machine stocked primarily with face masks, hand sanitizer and other essential items inside of the Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken, 5611 W. Madison St. in Austin.

"I created the machines not to compete with beauty supply stores, but to create a luxury for people who aren't able to get to beauty supply stores after hours," said Brown, who owned her own brick-and-mortar beauty supply stores first in Bellwood, where she lives, and then in Harvey before going into the vending machine business. "This gives them ease of access and instant gratification."

The machines are the result of Brown's engineering acumen, her sense of style and her acute business savvy. Brown, who said she's a former IT consultant who worked for the city of Chicago for 13 years, discovered that she could do away with the high operating costs that come with having a beauty supply store, stock her items with the most popular products that customers want and create a niche for herself.

And it seems to be working, she said. Brown has high ambitions to scale up her operation to 50 machines this year and 250 next year. She said she also offers franchise opportunities that come with pre-approved financing for purchasing individual machines, which go for $3,000 empty and $3,500 stocked with product.

Brown owns the name that appears on the machines — Mental Beauty Supply — and said her knowledge of retrofitting and operating them is proprietary.

"I'm an engineer, so I'm able to get old machines at low cost and reengineer the boards and add the credit card processors," she said. "I do everything myself. I also have my own distributors I work with. So, people can't just do all of this themselves."

Brown said that franchising includes a royalty fee that franchisees would pay each month. She said an app allows her to track sales from each machine. She added that she'll vet anyone interested in franchising to ensure market feasibility and other aspects of the business.

Brown said she's eyeing North Riverside Mall as a potential location for her next beauty supply vending machine. She's also looking at places like neighborhood convenient stores, senior home lobbies and transit stations, where there's high traffic, high security, high visibility and a captured market.

Brown said she had identified a liquor store in Chicago where she was going to install a third machine, but the widespread looting that started in the wake of George Floyd's death in late May scrapped those plans. Brown said she's grateful that she avoided that potential loss.

Ultimately, she said, she hopes that she can become a model for aspiring minority business owners who have ambitions of their own.

"I want to educate people about entrepreneurship, so that they can earn money and recycle it within their own communities," said Brown, who is also a certified life coach and author. "This is not about me. This is about how I can help other people turn their vision into reality."

For more information on Lo Brown, visit mentalbeautysupply.com.

Contact:
Email: michael@austinweeklynews.com Twitter: AustinWeeklyChi

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