Photo by Manuel Martinez Luke Saunders of Farmer’s Fridge
After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 2009, Luke Saunders took a sales job with a metal finishings business. Soon, he was logging 1,000 miles a week across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky—and relying on extreme measures to avoid the McDonald’s-KFC-Taco Bell circuit.
“I scheduled midday meetings with clients based on whether a grocery store with a salad bar was within 50 miles,” he says, laughing. (Saunders’ healthy bent took hold during a childhood in New Jersey suburbia, where his mom nixed Dunkaroos in favor of kale decades before the leafy green captured mainstream America’s attention.) It eventually hit him that what was needed is a wider way of getting fresh food to those hungering for it.
And so Farmer’s Fridge, a vending machine filled with salmon Nicoise salads, coconut chia pudding and other healthy choices packaged in Pinterest-worthy mason jars, was born. Prices range from $4 to $12; meals are replenished daily, and leftovers go to local food pantries.
To get his idea off the ground, Saunders—a food industry newbie—cashed in his stake in his family’s industrial lubricant business, ran up a couple of credit cards and begged a crash course in prepping satiating salads from the owners of a small cafe in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his wife was finishing law school. Next: a move to Chicago (the closest affordable city with a food scene), rented space in a West Town commercial kitchen and figuring out how to source BPA-free, recyclable plastic mason jars.
After setting up his first vending machine in 2013 in a now-shuttered food court in the Loop, he added Farmer’s Fridge machines in Northwestern Memorial Hospital, O’Hare International Airport and a dozen other locations over the next couple of years. Today, the company has 100 sites and recently expanded to Milwaukee. Last year, Farmer’s Fridge machines received touch-screen technology that works in conjunction with an app; the software lets customers check inventory at nearby machines and customizes rewards based on their purchasing habits, Saunders says. In 2016, Farmer’s Fridge debuted its first non-machine, real-restaurant location inside Revival Food Hall, an upscale food court in the Loop.
In April, Farmer’s Fridge received $10 million from Cleveland Avenue, the Chicago-based venture-capital firm run by former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, and Danone Ventures, the VC arm of the Paris-based yogurt giant. The money will help establish 100 more locations and finance sleeker versions of the fridges. “Luke and his team at Farmer’s Fridge are reinventing the way consumers think about, purchase and enjoy fresh, ‘better-for-you’ salads and snacks,” Thompson says in a statement.
Saunders, 31, won’t disclose Farmer’s Fridge revenue but says the company is now profitable. Economic arrangements vary, including employer-subsidized fridges for Loop office dwellers and revenue-sharing deals for machines inside CVS, 7-Eleven and Whole Foods stores. His 80-person staff now works from a West Town office near its 8,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.