Chicago-based Farmer’s Fridge, wants to revolutionize how people eat on the go. It is one of many companies focusing on advanced vending technologies, which are becoming increasingly popular in various industries because they allow businesses to provide a seamless and automated purchasing experience. Today’s most advanced vending kiosks can offer personalized content, track customer behavior and preferences, and provide a secure environment for products, so it makes sense that businesses such as Farmer’s Fridge are turning to them to improve customer service, tailor offerings, and increase sales.
The global vending machine industry is expected to reach about $146.6 billion in sales by 2027. The U.S. accounted for an estimated $36.5 billion as of 2020. If you have been in an airport recently, you’ve seen vending machines doling out everything from Best Buy electronics to Benefit Cosmetics and Sprinkles cupcakes.
Vending kiosks and autonomous checkout (unstaffed) stores are becoming increasingly popular in airports for a host of reasons. Travelers embrace their convenience; kiosks supply a wide range of quick and easy options. Airports love them because of their small footprint and 24-hour operation, which helps to reduce the lines at airport concession stands and restaurants and reduces staffing needs, particularly in a sensitive high-security environment. Meanwhile, consumer brands benefit from the valuable customer data that kiosks collect. By using them, businesses can track customer behavior and preferences to make more informed decisions about product and service offerings.
I recently came across Farmer’s Fridge on a tight connection in the American Airlines terminal at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. The nicely packaged fresh salad in a jar in the compact, modern-but-user-friendly vending refrigerator caught my eye. Not only did it supply me with a quick lunch when I was in a hurry, but the food was a healthier and less expensive alternative to my typical (if reluctant) choice of a bag of pretzels and a Diet Coke. I quickly browsed the menu, chose a Green Goddess Salad, and swiped my card. In less than two minutes, I was holding a fresh salad that was dispensed along with eco-friendly recyclable utensils and a napkin.
While enjoying my salad on my flight, I took a closer look at Farmer’s Fridge. I was just as impressed with the company as I was with the delicious jar of seasoned quinoa, lettuce, garbanzo beans, feta, pickled onion, and candied pecans (served on the side) that I was eating. Even better, I found out that Farmer’s Fridge was about to launch in my home city of Austin—starting inside the terminal and at baggage claim at the airport, with plans to expand throughout the city. Austin-Bergstrom Airport is known for having good choices of eateries, but they close early. Getting decent food on an outbound evening flight is tough, so Farmer’s Fridge will be a welcome addition.
Farmer’s Fridge provides meals through more than 400 automated vending machines in airports, offices, hospitals, and universities. A team of chefs and nutritionists in Chicago makes meals daily using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Each meal—primarily salads, bowls, and wraps—is packaged in recyclable and reusable containers and placed in automated vending machines. The vending machines have touchscreen menus, allowing customers to quickly and easily select meals. The kiosks contain healthy snacks and drinks as well. Customers can order and pay for meals at the machine or on the Farmer’s Fridge website or app. Farmer’s Fridge accepts credit and debit cards, as well as Apple Pay and Google Pay.
Vending machines have been around for a long time, providing convenient access to snacks and drinks. Unfortunately, the traditional vending machine has a reputation for offering unhealthy options like chips and soda. When healthy options exist, they are typically limited to items like protein bars, trail mix, yogurt, and fruit.
CEO Luke Saunders started Farmer’s Fridge in 2013 to make healthy food accessible. While working in corporate America, he often spent long hours at the office and found it challenging to locate tasty and nutritious food. He wanted to put healthy food in the hands of people who lack the time or resources to cook meals from scratch.
As the company grew, Saunders recognized the need for a sophisticated digital infrastructure that would support data coming in from an expanding network of vending machines managing a highly perishable inventory. The company deploys an impressive tech stack that guarantees food safety from farm to fridge, forecasts ingredient needs, reduces waste, and accurately plans trips for restocking. Farmer’s Fridge uses some off-the-shelf components for the vending refrigerators, but for the most part, it has built its own proprietary technology in-house. The company has a patent for some of its software that assesses demand and food safety. It also runs several microservices and workloads on Amazon Web Services and uses Samsara cold chain monitoring devices.
Farmer’s Fridge has more than 300 employees, most of them based in Chicago, and each operating city has a team of field representatives, fridge drivers, technicians, and market managers. In each market where the company operates, it has several vending machines and retail partner locations like Target, DashMart, Jewel-Osco, Amazon Go, and food courts. The company started offering home delivery options in 42 states in response to declining vending sales during the pandemic but will not continue that service as of this week, Saunders told me.
Farmer’s Fridge owns all its machines, unlike many vending operations that use franchises. The company makes and distributes all its food to maintain quality control. Although it retains ownership of its machines, various locations are treated differently from a revenue perspective. Some machines are in private spaces, e.g., in a workplace breakroom or industrial park, and are subsidized as an employee benefit. Some that are in high-traffic areas may have a revenue-sharing agreement with the property owner.
The company works with more than 50 local farms and producers to source its ingredients and regularly partners with organizations dedicated to reducing food insecurity. It has “donate by” dates on food items not sold before their expiration date and has given more than one million meals to people in need.
The success of Farmers Fridge is a testament to Saunders’ mission to make healthy food more accessible. The company continues to grow rapidly and is an example of how innovative business models and technologies can not only meet a market need, but also positively impact communities.
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