Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China: Commuters walking through the subway station in the Xinjiekou area of Nanjing can pick up a rather unusual snack from the vending machine. There's no chocolate, fizzy drinks or crisps here - this vending machine sells the popular local delicacy, crab - and what's more to ensure it's as fresh as possible - it's also sold alive. The idea is the brainchild of Shi Tuanjie Shi from the Twin Lakes Crab Company.
"I have seen a lot of vending machines selling cokes and snacks, and I thought crabs could be sold in vending machines as well, because crab has become a standardised product. Although crab is a kind of agricultural product, we have made standard packaging for them, so they can be sold in machines without any problems... So we started to do some research and designed the machine. We didn't make it at the very beginning, because it's really hard to keep crabs fresh and alive. We made some adjustments to the machine later, taking into considerations of issues like temperature control and so on. After that, we managed to trial the crab vending machine in this place, and it works very well and we have not found any dead crabs in our machine so far," he says.
Mr. Shi's machine keeps the crabs at around 5 degrees Celsius (around 41F) - cold enough to make the crabs sleepy, but also to keep them alive.
Shi has installed two vending machines of this kind in the underground train station near Xinjiekou - Nanjing's commercial area.
They were first introduced at the start of October. Since then, according to Shi, each machine regularly sells around 200 live crabs each day.
The crabs cost between 15 and 50 yuan (about two to seven US dollars), depending on size.
"Hairy crab" or "dazhaxie" is a popular regional specialty from the Yangtze River delta cities of Nanjing, Hangzhou and Shanghai.
"I think it is a cool thing, and this is the first time I've ever seen this machine, " says Nanjing resident Yuan Yizhen.
"Normally, people have to drive a long way to lakes to buy Dazhaxie(hairy crabs), and it takes a lot of time and the vending machine just brings more conveniences for us," says his partner Cao Wen.
Back at the production centre in Shi's hometown Gaochun County, about one and a half hour's drive from Nanjing, workers are classifying crabs into different size groups.
After being cleaned, the crabs are inserted into the custom-fitted packages - a special tool insures the legs and shells of the the crab fits neatly into the limited space.
Sri says the success of his idea is all down to the packaging - which he also created and patented. Nicknamed "huangjinjia" by Shi (literally means Golden Armour) it is made of edible plastic.
Sri says the hexagonal box, which has holes on top and bottom, can hold crabs of all sizes without breaking their legs or suffocating them.
"Without our 'Golden Armour' package, crabs would not be able to be sold in this kind of vending machine. We own two national patents for the 'Golden Armour'. Having the package is the precondition, and then we can sell live crabs in vending machines," he says.
Shi is planning to expand the trial vending machines to Shanghai later this year and to Beijing in 2011.