Green vending machines aim to make salad as convenient as a bag of chips

CHICAGO —Sick of eating junk food on the road, Luke Saunders set out five years ago to create a vending machine where a salad is as convenient as a candy bar.

"My friends all looked at me like I was crazy," Saunders said.

He began working on a refrigerated, high-end vending machine that would drop healthy, veggie-rich salads as quickly as a bag of chips. It took more than 30 prototypes but Saunders stuck with it, adding a recycling component for the earth-friendly jars. Fast forward to this week, and Saunders has been named one Crain's '40 under 40' for his Farmer's Fridge.

"It's hard to believe that five years ago we started with one Farmer's Fridge in a food court downtown and now we have over 215 between Chicago and Milwaukee," Saunders said.

The mega operation has grown to a staff of over 150 employees, many who work in the Fulton Market kitchen prepping thousands of healthy salads, bowls, wraps, soups and snacks every day.

Each Farmer's Fridge is restocked daily, ensuring only the freshest produce. Anything left by days' end is donated to charities like the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

"I'm addicted," regular customer Russel Bowman said. "I can get a salad with fresh greens, avocado, dried cherries and pistachios on the go. For nine bucks, you can't beat it."

Farmer's Fridge Chief Growth Officer Shayna Harris says the demand for the refrigerated vending machines has quadrupled just over the last year.

"We fill an unmet need...quality, healthy food that's convenient and a good value," Harris said.

Those early cynics have since fallen silent as investors began taking notice. This last fall, Farmer's Fridge closed a $30 million round of funding backed by prominent companies, and even a former McDonald's CEO.

"That's the thing about fresh food," Saunders said. "Everybody wants it and likes it. I look around and think I don't even know how this is happening every day, but it's so impressive and rewarding to know we are changing how people see food."

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