Commuters walking through the subway station in the Xinjiekou area of Nanjing can pick up a rather unusual snack—crab from the vending machine.
The idea is the brainchild of Shi Tuanjie, manager of 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 standardized 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."
Though it's a creative idea, everyone likes fresh food. So how does he ensure crabs in the vending machine as fresh as possible? In the beginning, Shi Tuanjie ran into some 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 consideration issues like temperature control. After that, we managed to try out the crab vending machine in this place, and it works very well. We have not found any dead crabs in our machine so far."
Putting crabs into sleep! What a great idea!
Shi's machine keeps the crabs at around 5 degrees Celsius, cold enough to make the crabs sleepy, but also to keep them alive.
Now, people can see two of these vending machines 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 has regularly sold around 200 live crabs each day.
The crabs cost between 15 and 50 yuan, about two to seven US dollars, depending on size.
Yuan Yizhen is a Nanjing resident.
"I think it is a cool thing, and this is the first time I've ever seen this machine."
"Hairy crab" or "dazhaxie" is a popular regional specialty from the Yangtze River delta cities of Nanjing, Hangzhou and Shanghai.
Yuan's partner, Cao Wen, believes the company can win some market share through selling crabs in vending machines.
"Normally, people have to drive a long way to lakes to buy hairy crabs, and it takes a lot of time and the vending machine just brings more convenience for us."
In the meantime, Shi says the success of his idea also depends on the packaging - which he also created and patented. Nicknamed "huangjinjia" by Shi, meaning Golden Armor, it is made of edible plastic.
"Without our 'Golden Armor' 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 starting point, and then we can sell live crabs in vending machines."
Back at the production center in Shi Tuanjie's hometown in Gaochun County, about one and a half hour's drive from Nanjing, workers are busy classifying crabs into different size groups.
After being cleaned, the crabs are put into the custom-fitted packages - a special tool insures the legs and shell of the crab fits neatly into the limited space. Shi says the hexagonal box, which has holes on top and bottom, can hold crabs of all sizes without breaking their legs or suffocating them.
Shi Tuanjie is planning to expand the trial vending machines to Shanghai later this year and to Beijing in 2011.
For CRI, I'm Zhang Cheng.