From the Millionaire to the Waldorf, salads have managed to cultivate a posh reputation. While there’s nothing inherently fancy or elite about a melange of vegetables, grains, cheeses, and protein, the concept has managed to break through as a status symbol, encapsulated in recent years by the vast proliferation of Sweetgreen outposts and a subgenre of TikTok entirely devoted to expensive produce at so-called celebrity grocery store Erewhon.
For the past decade, however, a Chicago company has found success selling salads via vending machines, a haven for unhealthy snacks like chips and candies. Farmer’s Fridge, once a fledgling startup from founder Luke Saunders, has sought to democratize salads by making them available to everyday people in the places they were already going, like airports, office buildings, hospitals, convention halls, and schools, all through high-tech vending machines that monitor food age and temperature.
Like the restaurant industry, the pandemic hurt Farmer’s Fridge and Saunders says the company lost 87 percent of its revenue in the first two weeks of COVID. It rapidly launched a home-delivery program with revenue returning to 95 percent of pre-pandemic levels by May 2020. The team also donated 400,000 meals to hungry people and frontline workers. The company has since ended the delivery program and continues to work with national hunger relief nonprofit Feeding America.
Once a traveling salesman himself, Saunders says the company’s origin story traces back to many late nights he spent with few dining options beyond fast food. Though he had no background in restaurants or hospitality, Saunders became consumed with making salads — and later, wraps and bowls — as easy to find as pre-packaged snacks.
“A lot of the creativity in the food industry is actually about constraints that you have to operate around,” he says. “The whole purpose of Farmer’s Fridge is to shift those constraints and do cool things, like selling [well-sourced] products to a mass-market audience at a price people can afford.”
Farmer’s Fridge has seen rapid growth since its founding in 2013, with locations at O’Hare International Airport, Shedd Aquarium, McCormick Place Convention Center, various hospitals, Los Angeles International Airport, and the Harvard University campus — as well as recent expansions into massive chains like Costco, Target, and airport concessionaire Hudson News. They operate more than 750 fridges — hyper-modern sloped metal boxes with windows that give patrons a look inside — equipped with software that maintains food-safe temperatures. Each machine reports temperatures every five minutes and ceases vending if it rises above 40 degrees. That means ingredients don’t need as many preservatives or sprays.
Saunders maintains that the company is well-equipped to keep the food quality high at scale because of an early business decision to eschew partnerships with big corporations in favor of independent purveyors like John Peterson, a third-generation turkey farmer and owner of Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.
Peterson says Ferndale is unique as an independent poultry farm that raises birds outdoors without antibiotics. Though there’s the annual Thanksgiving boom each November, Farmer’s Fridge’s reliable demand for turkey breast — the biggest cut of meat on the bird — for its turkey, apple, and white cheddar wrap has helped create economic stability both for Ferndale Market and other Cannon Falls businesses like Lorentz Meats where the farm’s turkey breast is smoked. The partnership with Farmer’s Fridge bucks a trend with large companies, Peterson says.
“So many of those dollars don’t stay in the community where they originate — they flow to corporate headquarters somewhere far away,” he says. “As a small-town guy and supporter of rural America, that’s really important to me. This is an area that we want to make sure continues to thrive.”
Farmer’s Fridge has also leaned Chicago’s bustling hospitality scene by forming collaborations with well-known chefs on limited-run items. Celebrity chef Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo) has contributed a chile-braised pork bowl with black beans and plantains, and Top Chef champion Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat) teamed up on a “Hong Kong noodle bowl” with tofu and edamame.
Some operators might be excited to highlight high-profile fridge locations at Paramount Pictures and Soldier Field, but Saunders says his favorite outposts are of a far more quotidian nature: 911 first responder dispatch and third-shift call centers. “Some of our best locations are at [Veterans Affairs] hospitals,” he says. “[Places] that are open 24/7 where there’s a need for people when everything is closed.”