The phrase “gourmet mall food” seems like an oxymoron, especially when holiday shopping fatigue often leads to giant cinnamon rolls and pretzels. But now there's something new and upscale at area shopping meccas, a far cry from the fare at most food court stands. If you've got the taste and the wallet for it, you can buy gourmet caviar from vending machines — yes, vending machines — at Westfield Topanga, Burbank Town Center or at Westfield Century City.

The automated vendors house a full selection of caviar and other unusual foods, some we never heard of, and others we definitely can't afford, such as Imperial River Beluga for $500 an ounce. But there also are selections in much lower price points, like American Black Caviar for $30 an ounce.

The business, Beverly Hills Caviar, is owned by husband and wife team Kelly Stern and Brian Scheiner, who both come from long lines of Eastern European “caviar families.”

The couple, in their early thirties, handles different aspects of the company, in addition to raising a young child. “Our daughter was born into this business just like us,” says Stern, “and one day if she wants, she will continue the tradition.”

The idea of selling caviar from a vending machine may seem offbeat, but Stern says it's a business model that works. While the machines definitely attract a curious audience, there also are caviar aficionados, including chefs, who come with their credit cards in hand.

Developing the right kind of machine was challenging. Temperature, moisture, ventilation, lighting and oxygen levels all had to be perfectly regulated to keep the caviar fresh.

“We actually patented the technology because it was so time-intensive and we needed so many engineers just to get it done right,” says Stern.

Then there also was the matter of security, no small concern, given that the daily inventory adds up to around $50,000. Without revealing any secrets, let's just say that it's unlikely that even someone with the talents of James Bond could crack these cases. (And you might want to comb your hair before approaching the machine, because three cameras will be taking your picture.)

The left side of the machine dispenses more than two dozen types of caviar; the right side offers other exotic goods, including escargot, Italian truffles, blinis, flavored salts and mother of pearl plates and spoons. The most popular selection these days is the Classic Osetra Caviar, which sells for around $50 an ounce. The company even sells red salmon caviar for dogs and cats.

“We have some very strange types of items,” concedes Stern.

Included in that category is the vegan caviar, which looks like the real deal but is made from seaweed, olive oil and sea salt: “We call it the prop caviar. It's mainly used for movies and TV. Basically, it can sit outside forever and not spoil and still be edible.”

Another unusual choice is dried mullet caviar, which Stern said is eaten by Algerian, Tunisian, French, Spanish and Jordanian communities. Described on the website as the “beef jerky” of caviar, it is a dry, hard slab that is sliced or grated, often added to pasta dishes. Extremely popular and affordable in France — the stuff also goes by the name bottarga and is called karasumi in Japan — it's difficult to come by in Southern California, which explains why it sells for $65 for 180 grams.

“We personally don't eat it,” says Stern, “but many people do and they will pay a lot of money to be able to access this kind of caviar.”

Some serious shoppers no doubt plan ahead and come equipped with a cooler in their car. But no need to fret if your caviar purchase is an impulse buy. It emerges from the vending machine in a specially designed insulated box, in a “frosty state,” which provides a window of about three hours to get it back in a fridge or onto your plate.

“By the time you get home it's usually just perfect and you can eat it, and it will be the tastiest thing you ever had,” says Stern.

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