Local guitar pick vending machine business donates a share of profits to Planned Parenthood

By Lucia Whalen
Medill Reports

Chicago music venues Gallery Cabaret, The Empty Bottle and Cole’s Bar have new additions to their décor: adult vending machines that, for the price of four quarters, deliver a small plastic container that holds a one-of-a-kind guitar pick and a condom.

The business, Glitter Picks, is owned by local Chicago musician-turned entrepreneur Alen Khan, and 10% of all proceeds are donated to Planned Parenthood. Rock and roll meets safe sex.

According to Khan, the idea for Glitter Picks came to him while in search of a guitar pick at the Gallery Cabaret music open mic in early 2019.

“I went up there to play and no one had a pick, and I’m notorious for never having a pick. So I said, ‘Hey, why don’t places like this have a machine that just has picks?’ And that’s kind of how it started,” Khan explained.

Khan started experimenting with designs at home with his 7-year-old daughter by painting glitter on blank guitar picks, before eventually getting more serious and learning how to mold picks himself.

Alen Khan sits at The Empty Bottle, 1035 N Western AVe., with his brightly lit Glitter Picks dispenser in the background. The vending machines can also be found at Gallery Cabaret, 2020 N Oakley Ave., and Cole’s Bar, 2338 N Milwaukee Ave.

“I went through about 15-20 different types of resin. I have two different types that I make. I make the cheaper ones that go in the machines [at bars] that are the dollar picks, and then I have a fancier resin that takes a couple days to set that I use more for art pieces,” Khan said. Khan uses vintage type writer keys and other small items to design the fancier resin picks, and those art pieces are available on the Glitter Picks website.

Each Glitter Picks dispenser is uniquely designed for its home venue, and, in a way, the dispenser designs are a love letter to the music venues that Khan feels were essential to his experience as a musician in Chicago. The dispenser at The Empty Bottle is brightly lit and decorated with guitar pick-filled empty bottles. The dispenser at Gallery Cabaret has clear plexiglass sides painted by one of the venue’s employees. The dispenser at Cole’s is themed for a fake record label, an inside joke specifically for bar owner Cole Brice who started a fake record label one year as an April Fool’s joke.

A key feature of each dispenser is a recycling container on top of the machine, and customers are encouraged to drop plastic containers in the bin, where they will be reused for future picks.

The Glitter Picks dispenser at The Empty Bottle was designed with resin-filled bottles. Each dispenser has a recycling bin on top, where plastic pick containers can be dropped, along with unwanted picks or condoms.

“[It’s] less plastic and saves me money. Honestly, you end up throwing those things away anyways. So this way I get to reuse them and also, if they don’t want the pick, the pick in there,” Khan said.

If customers do not want the condom, they can also put them in the bin (unused, of course). If passersbys see a condom in the bin and want to take it, they are free to do so.

While the connection between music venues and guitar picks may be obvious, the connection between guitar picks and donation to Planned Parenthood is not so apparent. The idea to include condoms in the containers originally came from a friend of Khan’s, who suggested that Khan get condoms from Planned Parenthood and include them in the dispenser to appeal to more buyers than just guitar player.

While Khan liked the idea of including condoms, he did not feel comfortable taking condoms from Planned Parenthood and yielding a profit. So he decided to donate a portion of his proceeds, as he also has a personal connection to the family planning nonprofit.

“[Planned Parenthood] gave me a cheap affordable vasectomy. It altered the course of my life, probably. And of course, politically, all the shit that’s going on now against it. I figured it was a good cause. Instead of just seeing everything get defunded and everything [I] care about getting take away and posting about it on Facebook, I was like ‘Well, I’m going to try to at least give some money,” he said.

Before officially launching the Glitter Picks dispensers, Khan hosted a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood at Gallery Cabaret in July, and raised $377.

Inside each dispenser, plastic containers hold one-of-a-kind resin-molded guitar picks and a free condom. Ten percent of all proceeds go to Planned Parenthood.

For Khan, spreading awareness of the full spectrum of services that Planned Parenthood offers is a central goal of his, and Glitter Picks serves as a reminder of the constant need to support the organization.

Khan admits there is an inherent political dimension to the business that might deter certain customers who do not support the cause, but he said he hopes the message that Planned Parenthood is more than just an “abortion factory” reaches more people. Planned Parenthood is a place that offers health services for both men and women, he said. Because many associate the organization with women’s health, and specifically the political stigma of abortion, Khan found people questioning his motives when he started the business.

In reality, abortions represent only 3% of the services rendered by Planned Parenthood, and the stigma associated with abortion prevents many who could benefit from realizing the full range of services available for all genders. Birth control, vasectomies, HIV counseling, gender affirming hormone therapy and vaccines are all examples of services offered by Planned Parenthood.

According to Tim O’Reilly, Communications and Digital Content Specialist at Planned Parenthood Illinois, the misunderstanding about what Planned Parenthood offers exists for most people, whether they support or oppose the mission of the organization.

“Obviously, we’re proud of [our abortion services]. But it’s funny how it’s blown out of proportion and that’s the thing we’re known for. Really, the idea for us when it comes to approaching healthcare and why we try to dispel these stigmas, is that at the end of the day we’re incredibly proud to serve anyone who wants to use our services,” O’Reilly said.

Photo at top: The Glitter Picks Dispenser at The Empty Bottle in Chicago, custom designed for the venue, features empty bottles at the top of the dispenser. (Lucia Whalen)