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Farmer's Fridge founder Luke Saunders introduces Chicagoans to salads!

Farmer's Fridge founder Luke Saunders introduces Chicagoans to salads!
Farmer's Fridge founder Luke Saunders introduces Chicagoans to salads!

That's right. It's finally happened; salads in a vending machine. No, not the sometimes questionable egg salad and tuna salad that sometimes appears behind the glass, but a vendor and a vending machine devoted to healthy, fresh ingredients, prepared daily, available in a jar.

"The result is a diverse menu that ranges from "The Cheater," a modified classic Cobb salad, to "The Junk Food Eraser," a detox salad stocked with kale, quinoa, sprouts, fennel, blueberries and pineapple with a cider vinegar-lemon dressing on the side. Available separately are proteins -- lemon-pepper chicken, tofu, tuna and salmon -- as well as a handful of sides, including Greek yogurt with berries and sliced vegetables with hummus. The salads start at $8, proteins (except salmon) are $2 and the sides cost $4.25." according to the Huffington Post. Yelp is abuzz with a solid five-star rating.

Farmer's Fridge founder, Luke Saunders talked with me about his plans for the company, and how it all began.

Luke, can you tell me how it all began? How did you get the idea for this company?

I have always been someone who sought out healthy food, and I have been a bit obsessed with the food industry my entire life. 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. I happened to be working in the manufacturing industry, so I was seeing all the things machines could do and one day the idea just clicked. The basic idea was that I could create a new model for food distribution that was built around a widely distributed, automated system.

Has healthy eating come naturally for you then?

Yes and no. I grew up in a house where healthy eating was taken for granted. My mom cooked lots of fish, and there were always twice as many vegetables as anything else. However, I personally remember begging my mom to let us have junk food in the house without much success. When I finally left the house to go to school, I went crazy for a few months. Lots of soda and french fries, but it didn’t take long for me to get sick of that stuff and join a club at school with the purpose of promoting healthier options in the lunch room. I still love certain junk food, but I eat it very sparingly. I am really passionate about healthy food, and thanks to the early training, it does come very naturally.

What are your goals with this company?

I want to be a leading supplier of healthy, convenient, fast food. I would like more people to be closer to a Farmer’s Fridge than to the next closest unhealthy option.

If you could describe your company in one sentence, what would you say?

Healthy, fresh food at your fingertips.

Do you really think it's possible for people to change their eating habits and way of living to get healthy?

Absolutely. Once people start eating healthy options, they quickly realize how much better they feel and it becomes a virtuous cycle. I think the challenging part is when the plan is part of an overly aggressive diet plan or linked to food that isn’t actually healthy. When you are eating real food (not like “real” cheese) you actually become full, and your energy levels and mood improve. I eat 10x as many salads as I did before I started this business because it is easier. I think we are geared to reach for the lowest hanging fruit, and my goal it to make a business out of that fact.

What have been the advantages for you of being an entrepreneur in Chicago?

We live in a city that is relatively affordable, has great public transportation, and a highly intelligent and motivated workforce (entry level to experienced executives). This means I can get great people in any role I need for the business, and at any stage. We are also the 3rd largest city in the US, so I can build enough scale locally to become a national brand. If you were to compare the size of the market and relative ease of doing business in Chicago (logistics, workforce, cost) I am fairly sure it would be the #1 best market to start a business in the US, by a wide margin. I think the challenge for some businesses like mine is adapting the concept to markets on the East/West coast, but I am confident we have an “exportable” concept.

I also have to mention that the community around entrepreneurs in Chicago is very strong. I have had some amazing mentorship, and there is a lot of creative stuff happening here.

As a Chicago entrepreneur, what has been your biggest challenge?

While I am proudly a Chicago entrepreneur, I am not an entrepreneur from Chicago, so this has been challenging at times. I am actually from New Jersey, and I only moved to Chicago in June 2013. I had spent a summer here with my wife before we decided to move to Chicago, but I am not a native. In fact, I planned the entire business while living in Michigan. As a result, I am often learning things that I would know already if I grew up locally. I haven’t felt like an outsider, but some local knowledge wouldn’t hurt.

Where would you like the company to be in five years?

I would like to have thousands of machines deployed, and be known as a leader in the healthy food space.

For those who don't like salads, why would they be interested in trying out what you've got?

Try the cheater salad first. If you tell me you don’t like that salad, then I am pretty sure you are a liar. However, my next suggestion would be to try one of our soups, or some cauliflower fried rice with an added chicken. We are also working on some wraps.

Farmer's Fridge can be found at:

Location #1 Garvey Food Court, 201 North Clark Street, Chicago At the corner of Clark & Lake Streets)

Location #2 Lake Forest Tollway Oasis, above Route 94 in Lake Forest, IL

Saunders says his company will be opening a new kiosk every day beginning Thursday, February 13, all in and around Chicago. Hint: My local LAFitness would be a prime candidate.

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