The first fully automated vending machine was invented in England in the 1880s and dispensed stamps. Since then, there’s been a vending machine for a shockingly wide array of products: cigarettes, cupcakes, books, bananas, and even live crabs.
However, when most people picture a vending machine, one image commonly comes to mind: junk food.
In 2014, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that chips, candy and sweet baked goods constituted over 80 percent of vending machines’ contents on United States public property.
That statistic didn’t sit right with Luke Saunders, now the CEO of Farmer’s Fridge. Why should unhealthy food options go hand-in-hand with convenience? As a former salesman who often traveled more than 1,000 miles per week, Saunders was well-accustomed to the types of snacks generally found at gas stations and convenience stores. But Saunders believed it should be just as easy, fast and affordable to get a salad as it was a candy bar.
Turns out, it could be — he just had to make his own vending machines.
Saunders founded Farmer’s Fridge in 2013 and created a supply chain of automated vending machines or “fridges.” With food from local vendors and farms, these distributed fridges provided consumers with healthy options (think granola parfaits, salad jars and grain bowls) that sold for around $8 per dish.
Finally, people had meal and snack options that were as convenient as traditional vending machines, but way healthier, he said.
The company raised $30 million in Series C funding in September 2018. From there, engineers moved the IoT technology to the cloud for better efficiency and built a mobile app so customers could reserve orders from their phones. In February 2020, Farmer’s Fridge had their most profitable month to date and sales report projections were ticking skyward.
But by the end of March, most of their customers weren’t leaving their homes, let alone using healthy vending machines.
Saunders said revenue dropped 85 percent at the start of the pandemic. Fridge deliveries and city expansions were halted. With remote work and shelter-in-place orders, Saunders and his team had to figure out how to bring healthy food into their customers’ homes.
Luckily, having a nimble, dedicated team in place prepared them for a pivot.
Within a few weeks, Farmer’s Fridge launched a home delivery and wholesale program — ventures not on the business plan before COVID-19. Saunders credits the entrepreneurial spirit of his team and their dedication the company mission as the reason for their accomplishments. Ultimately, these new channels helped make up for lost fridge revenue and allowed customers to choose healthy options without cooking or spending major dollars on takeout.
Not all Farmer’s Fridge customers could work from home, though.
When COVID-19 hit the U.S., the company immediately deployed 80 fridges to health care facilities, gave discounts to frontline medical workers and donated more than $500,000 to community partners.
Below, Saunders explained how the company’s start-up mentality and charitable mission statement ensures that even in challenging times, everyone should be able to eat well.