From Farm to Fridge


By Francine Katz

They say that behind every successful man is a surprised mother-in-law.  Not this one. I knew from the time I met my daughter’s future husband that he was destined to break the mold.  

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but for my son-in-law, Luke Saunders, it was frustration that led to his brainchild.  Five years ago, Luke was working for his family’s business, a metal plating company, as a traveling salesman covering the Midwest.  My daughter was in law school in Ann Arbor, and from there Luke set out every Monday in his Subaru visiting companies across his territory.  That wasn’t the frustrating part, although for a young entrepreneur, this was hardly his dream job. His real problem was where to find a decent meal on the road.  Like most people, Luke enjoyed a bit of fast food now and then, but not as a steady diet. His work took him to cities where healthy fare was hard to come by. He found himself arranging his stops so that he could end the day near a grocery store with fresh produce. Of course, creating meals in a motel room is not ideal either, and this led Luke to use his many hours in the car to ponder this problem.

An entrepreneur at heart (he’d run a successful bike rental business in college), Luke knew there had to be a way to turn the problem into a solution.  His epiphany came late one night as he checked into his motel. He watched a fellow weary traveler stand before a vending machine and reluctantly buy a bag of chips, and the light bulb went off.  Why couldn’t a vending machine be turned into a self-serve restaurant offering food made fresh each day? Immediately upon my daughter’s graduation, they moved to Chicago to test the idea. They drained their savings account and maxed-out their credit cards. They also convinced my husband and me to support the dream. And so, Farmer’s Fridge was born.

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Today, Farmer’s Fridge has over 115 machines in Chicago and Milwaukee in office buildings, airports, hospitals and schools.  The company stocks them with fresh foods each morning, all hand-made from a central kitchen in Chicago’s West Loop. The offerings include breakfast, lunch and dinner items, as well as healthy snacks all packaged in recyclable mason jars.  Nothing is processed, no artificial ingredients are used and there are plenty of options for people with special dietary needs, such as vegans and those on a gluten-free diet. The meals are prepared each night, delivered early in the morning, and all unsold items are donated to local food pantries. Using proprietary software and touch screen technology developed by the Farmer’s Fridge team, the machines are fully automatic, eliminating the need for people to serve the meals, which means these “restaurants” are open 24/7.  The company has built a data-platform that can tell them how much food it should stock each day, based on data algorithms and demand forecasting.

Luke’s dream is to have fridges in cities across the country, giving fast food restaurants a run for their money, and a hungry public a healthy alternative.  Let the food revolution begin!
Photos: Farmer's Fridge