At the Garvey Food Court in downtown Chicago–a somewhat bleak place that Yelp reviewers call “sketchy” and even “scary”–there’s plenty of typical fast food fare. Dunkin Donuts, Popeyes, McDonalds, and other chains ring the hallway. But in the center of the food court, things are a little different: Last fall, an entrepreneur named Luke Saunders opened Farmer’s Fridge, a vending machine that sells fresh kale and strawberries instead of candy.
Each morning, the machine is filled with freshly made salads and snacks packed in recyclable jars. The ingredients, carefully layered to stay crisp throughout the day, are all organic, and locally grown when possible.
“I have always been someone who sought out healthy food, and I have been a bit obsessed with the food industry my entire life,” Saunders says. “I really noticed how hard it was to eat healthy when I was traveling a lot for work, and I started thinking about ways to give healthy food an edge in the market.”
By forgoing the rent and staff costs of a restaurant, Saunders can start to compete with the chains. He says he prefers the vending machines–which he calls kiosks or “veggie machines”–to selling the food in grocery stores, since the machines give him control over the user experience and distribution model.
“We are running pilot programs with a few stores, but at the end of the day I feel like having my own distribution channel gives me the flexibility to stay true to our healthy food mission,” he says. “I also felt like I could get the machines closer to the end user, which we believe is key to making it easier to eat healthy.”
Each of the vending machine’s offerings is carefully balanced nutritionally for the most health benefits. The “High Protein Salad,” for example, which includes quinoa and chickpeas, claims to offer more protein than many protein bars. The food is also always fresh: After discounting salads and snacks at the end of the day, the company donates any unsold meals to a local food kitchen.
The machine itself, clad in recycled barn wood, includes a small hole where users can return the jars for recycling. “It’s fairly low tech, and we occasionally find trash in there,” says Saunders. But at their newest location, he says they’re already getting a return rate of 80%.
So far, almost everyone who tries the food comes away a fan. “As far as I know we are the only vending machine in the world to have Yelp reviews,” Saunders says. “Most people tell us that the salads are the best they have ever had.”
“All of the food we serve from our machine has to be in the running for the title of ‘Best ______ I have ever had,'” he adds. That means some items, like sandwiches, will never be on the menu, because they just can’t be as good when they aren’t freshly made. But salads are different, and the company is constantly testing new recipes to add.
After opening two more vending machines last fall, Saunders says that Farmer’s Fridge is continuing to quickly grow. “I am not sure where we will stop, but at this point we have more machines planned to launch in February than I thought would launch in all of 2014.”