Made In Chicago: Farmer's Fridge

Lisa Fielding
January 07, 2019 - 6:00 am
Farmer's Fridge's production plant on the Near West Side.

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- You've likely seen them at O'Hare Airport, at the Merchandise Mart, the hospital or even on Chicago's many college campuses, but Farmer's Fridge has humble beginnings. The company is the brainchild of Luke Saunders, 32, who was sick of traveling and eating Cheetos, M & M's and Cinnabons.

"I have a manufacturing and sales background and I was traveling a lot," Saunders said. "I had a lot days on the road. I was driving 1,000 miles a week and a lot of times, the only option was a vending machine or fast food. I started thinking. how can I make fresh, healthy meals as accessible as a candy bar?"

Saunders said he had no background in the food industry but the idea was born more from his experience as a traveler.

"If we make fresh food every day, get it to customers the same day, what would that look like and how would it work? That's how I backed into the idea of a vending machine," he said.

Farmer's Fridge launched in 2013 with a single vending machine that offered fresh, handmade meals, mostly packaged in jars.

"I looked online to find a trade show for the vending industry," Saunders said. "It was a combination of touch screen and vending technology. Some woodworkers out of Batavia helped me to build the first Farmer's Fridge. It's a refrigerator box with motors in it and an elevator so the food gets picked up and delivered at waist height."

 The tech-savvy machines feature touch screens for ordering and are also app-enabled, allowing users to both order and scan the inventory of fridges nearby.

 The heart of Farmer's Fridge begins in a large production kitchen on West Lake Street.

"It's a giant commercial kitchen," Saunders said. "What happens here everyday is that we bring whole ingredients in, we're cutting them, prepping them, washing them and preparing salads every single day."

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

After preparing and packing the items, Farmer's Fridge must get the fresh salads out fast. Saunders said they produce more than 10,000 items daily and any unsold food is donated to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

"Our drivers show up and they deliver salads all night, over night and customers show up and buy them the next day," he said. "That whole process repeats 365 days a year."

Six years in, 160 employees and 215 fridges later, Saunders said they've now moved into the Milwaukee area.

"We have about 30 locations in Milwaukee now," he said. "We're going to use that template to expand in other Midwest cities."

Farmer's Fridge
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Saunders said the good on-the-go market is a niche one. In you can get a movie and money from a vending machine, Saunders says why not fresh food that tastes good, a concept that's made in Chicago.

"What we've been able to fill a gap where a restaurant ends and vending machine begins. It's really a restaurant quality meal from a vending machine."

Saunders said he is proud that his local business is now starting to expand its reach. 

"I'm not sure people realize this business was started here in Chicago, built from the ground up here in Chicago and 100% Chicago based."

For locations and more information, check out Farmer's Fridge's website here.

Farmer's Fridge
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding