Man makes old soda machines like new

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 13, 2013

GRANITE FALLS (AP) — When Alan Huffman ducks through the back door of Stephen’s Main Street Grill, the chorus begins.
The cries of “Hey, Alan!” and “What’s up, Alan?” rise from nearly every cook, waitress and patron at the small, hometown restaurant in downtown Granite Falls.
Because in Granite Falls, Alan Huffman knows everyone.
Huffman’s Antiquities Vending Company — which is so close to Stephen’s Main Street Grill that they almost share a parking lot — is home to the largest collection of antique soda machines in the world. He restores the machines for customers, both individual and commercial.
Occasionally he gets calls from the History Channel and Discovery Channel.
Often, the customers are just people who found an old soda machine. Maybe it belonged to their grandparents, no one really took care of it, and it has stopped working.
They call Huffman and ask if he can fix it. He always can.
“It’ll work again just like it worked in the ‘40s,” he said. “It’ll take a nickel and give you a drink.”
Most of Huffman’s higher-profile customers find him online. Search “antique vending machines” on Google, and he’s one of the first links that come up.
But what catches most of the drive-by attention is a sign on the side of the big, yawning building where all those old machines are housed: “Antique Vending Company’s Soda Machine Museum.”
It’s not really a museum, though, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. For one thing, no one expects you to pay. And there are no regular hours.
Just give Alan a call — that’s 828-962-9783, if you’re not from Granite Falls — and he’ll set you up with a tour.
For Huffman, this all started in 1989, when he found his first vintage soda machine in Columbia, S.C.
The machine was on sale at an antique store for $350. He borrowed the money to buy it.
But as he worked to restore the machine, he quickly realized there weren’t any examples for him to follow. There were no 1950s-era Coke maintenance manuals.
Some people would have given up. Huffman collected a roomful of examples.
Now, when someone brings him an antique machine with a missing piece, Huffman can walk into his showroom, find the machine’s double and make an identical part.
And you walk out with your machine fixed.
Huffman bought that first vending machine because it stirred a memory.
He saw it and remembered something he hadn’t thought of in years: The old soda machine at Galaxy Food Store in Granite Falls.
When Huffman was a kid, the machine was set up in the back, with refillable bottles and a glass door. He’d stand there and look at his favorite drink, the orange Sun Crest with the bumpy glass bottle.
He usually didn’t have any money to buy anything, but he could look.
“It reminded me of a time when I was a child and when things seemed to be simpler,” Huffman said. “It always helps a person to, when they get older, take one thing from when they were young, and see that it stays young.”
So that’s why Huffman owns a vending machine restoration company: because he loved his childhood, and he loved Granite Falls, and he loved staring through that soda-machine glass.
Huffman still loves Granite Falls. He knows everyone who has been there longer than a minute, and they look after him.
Years ago, Huffman decided it was time to trim down. He’s single, though, and eats every meal out — which could’ve been a dieter’s worst nightmare.
Instead, Huffman figured out what foods he could eat, and asked each of his local haunts to start making them. Sometimes he had to buy the food himself, but they made it for him.
At Stephen’s, his meal of grilled tilapia and twice-roasted green beans has made it onto the menu as “The Alan.”
Huffman’s business takes him all over the country — including back to South Carolina, where he found his first machine.
At the end of the day, he likes to come home to Granite Falls, where he and his business can both spread out and have a little room to breathe.
“In a small town, you have more freedom to move around,” he said. “That’s really the main thing. I like visiting big cities — love it — but I like knowing I can get in my car and go back to Granite Falls.”
And besides, in Columbia who would know how he likes his tilapia?