American Dreamer

LEON LEYKIN:

A Year In Their Lives

December 28, 2003|By Linell Smith

Who can resist the all-American story of the little guy -- a middle-aged little guy -- who succeeds against overwhelming odds? Who struggles forward despite cultural and language barriers? Who persists in the face of rejection?

Who can resist the heartwarming tale of a man and his hot dog machine?

In 2003, Leon Leykin traveled two patents closer to securing his version of the American Dream: Revolutionizing the fast-food industry with freshly cooked hot dogs from a vending machine he has spent years designing.

In a line of vending machines, Leon's machine is a colorful standout: Mustard yellow with photos of giant hot dogs. It has more than 350 parts, most too complicated to explain. The groundbreaking nature of this machine, though, is simple: It will prepare and serve a hot dog in less than a minute.

Leon's machine can use any brand of hot dog (or sausage, turkey dog or tube hamburger) that a vending machine operator desires to stock. The hot dog is stored in a refrigerated section of the machine, then cooked with a microwave and infrared process patented this year.

While each hot dog is cooking, the machine removes a bun from its individually sealed pouch -- another patented process -- and warms it in a second oven. Meanwhile, a window in the machine allows customers to watch this dramatic action and its climax -- the pairing of bun and dog -- before receiving it, piping hot, with a choice of condiments.

The notion of a machine dispensing the all-American meal may seem simple. But anyone who's tried to cook a hot dog in a microwave can list the difficulties. They only multiply if you add a bun to the equation.

In fact, Leon's most important inspiration, observers say, was to separate hot dog from bun, storing and preparing each separately.

"I think of hot dog as a very delicate food," he says in his accented English. "To make hot dog uniformly cooked is a very big challenge. But if you tell me something's impossible, I'm going to sleep at night thinking how to do it."

Leon's hot dog machine was the talk of 2003's National Automatic Merchandising Association's annual show. Although many "hot choice" vending machines heat up previously prepared foods such as pizza, a machine that actually "cooks" food remains a novelty.

"I think it has a real future," says Larry Eils, NAMA's senior director of technical services. "I was quite surprised and amazed when I first saw it."

Even more amazing, however, is the 55-year-old inventor himself.

Leon Leykin spent the first half of his life in the former Soviet Union, navigating through its system-wide anti-Semitism. When he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1988, he was able to bring with him only his degree in electrical engineering -- and an intimate knowledge of vending machines.

After years of working for the country's largest vending machine developer, Leon knew how to build machines that dispensed cooking oils, and ones that sold beer. He worked on ticket machines and machines that packaged fruits and vegetables. He helped design and service machines, and he knew how to fix them.

"As long as I can remember, we would go from one vending machine to another," his daughter Victoria recalls. "My dad would go all over Russia. He was always coming up with ways to better the machines, to keep them from breaking down as often. He was always improving and re-engineering.

"Then, when we first lived in Rockville, my dad subdivided my parents' bedroom and turned half of it into his office. That's where he started the hot dog machine and built his first prototype."

But we're getting ahead of the story.

First, the Leykins -- Leon, Slava and teen-aged Victoria -- had to get out of the Soviet Union. The year they left, 1988, was a watershed year for Jewish emigration because the Soviet Union was interested in improving its relationship with the United States. The family flew from Kiev, Ukraine, to Vienna, Austria, made their way to Rome and eventually to Rockville with the help of various Jewish service agencies.

It was culture shock. Not only had Leon never seen an American movie, but he didn't speak a word of English.

He was 40 years old.

The Jewish Social Services Agency of Metropolitan Washington helped him get a job as a technical assistant at a high-tech firm, Fusion Systems Corporation. In his interview, Leon drew pictures because he couldn't say what he knew. Asked about a certain pump, for instance, he sketched out a complex engineering diagram that demonstrated he understood everything about it.

He moved up quickly in the company, while learning English at night at a community college.

One evening between classes, Leon headed to the cafeteria vending machines for something to eat. It was a life-changing experience.

"I looked for snack machine and find only sweet stuff," he recalls. "I was sick to my stomach. Why is there not a machine with real food? Why not a machine that sells hot dogs? Everyone likes hot dogs."

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