In one of his first jobs after college, Luke Saunders happened to take a sales job that required driving 1,000 miles a week through Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky. Dinner, most of the time, meant fast food. Lunch might be a bag of chips or a soggy burrito from a convenience store. Saunders realized there needed to be a better way to access healthy food anywhere.
In 2013, he launched the first prototype of a solution: a vending machine that would serve fresh salads, restocked daily, with kale, spinach, quinoa, and other vegetables, grains, and fruit layered neatly in glass jars. The first location, next to Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s in a food court in downtown Chicago, was soon getting five-star reviews on Yelp.
Today, his startup, called Farmer’s Fridge, has around 120 vending machines in Chicago and Milwaukee, and it plans to double that number this year.
When he began, Saunders says, his office was the food court next to the vending machine, where he talked to customers about what they liked and didn’t like. There were challenges. “Very early on, a lot of it was proving that you could convince a consumer that you could actually buy a really high-quality meal from what is objectively a vending machine,” he says. (He likes to consider it a “micro-restaurant” and also simply calls it a fridge.)
The first prototypes were paneled in reclaimed wood and decorated with live plants. Signs pointed out that the food had been made the same day. But these details didn’t really matter. “What we really learned was a lot of the things we were doing were actually extraneous . . . What we ultimately found was that people just look at the food,” he says. “And then they try it, and if it meets their expectations or exceeds their expectations, they come back.”
In Chicago, the vending machines are in a range of locations: in office buildings, where workers without time for lunch can get a salad or quinoa bowl instead of chips; hospitals, where the machine’s offerings can be more appealing than the cafeteria; a 911 call center where employees previously relied on fast food; inside CVS and 7-11; in student centers at universities; and in surburban neighborhoods where someone would otherwise have to drive to reach a restaurant.
This access, in theory, should make it more likely that people choose to eat healthy food, though Saunders realizes that convenience is not the only factor in convincing someone to choose healthy food. “If healthy food doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter how convenient it is,” he says. “If it’s not affordable relative to the alternatives, it doesn’t matter how convenient or tasty it is. What we’ve learned over the last five years is there’s this triangle of convenience, taste, and value, and we have to be the best on all three. If you can do that, then absolutely you can change the way that people eat.”
Most offerings in the vending machine go for around $7–notably cheaper than competitors like Sweetgreen, which also has been growing in Chicago. As Sweetgreen and other healthy fast-food options have come to the city, including salads at Starbucks, Farmer’s Fridge hasn’t seen any loss in business, because salads are suddenly much more in demand than they were in the past.
The fridges are digitally connected to the company’s kitchen, where it preps salads, yogurt parfaits, and a few non-salad options, like a pesto pasta bowl, each day. “We get a report every day that tells us exactly what we need to make for every fridge, we make that to order–we’re literally chopping the lettuce as that number comes in, cutting avocados on the line–the whole business is built around making what the fridges need,” Saunders says. An algorithm helps predicts how much to make, reducing waste; any extra food at the end of the day is donated.
It’s a model that Saunders plans to take to the rest of the Midwest, and then the country. “Ultimately, the impact of this business comes with solving the original problem of making fresh, healthy food more accessible, not just for a couple people in an office building in Chicago, but to as many people as possible,” he says.