What do most travelers and healthcare workers have in common? A hard time finding healthy food on the go. It's easy to get frustrated with the plethora of highly processed foods in airports and limited options in hospital cafeterias. The founder of a company called Farmer's Fridge is determined to change that.
“I could always find a candy bar but I couldn't always find a high-quality salad,” Luke Saunders told TODAY Food. To solve this problem, the former traveling salesman designed a smart fridge meets vending machine. Then, he stocked it with fresh salads and nutritious bowls pre-packaged in reusable plastic jars. The first Farmer's Fridge debuted in a Chicago food court in 2013. Today, the U.S. is home to more than 400 fridges, many in airports and hospitals. This month alone Minneapolis International Airport welcomed eight.
Even in the midst of omicron, the Chicago-based company has no plans of slowing down. In 2022 It hopes to double its airport and healthcare portfolios. Currently, Farmer's Fridge has 118 machines in hospitals and 60 in airports. Some locations are so popular they have to be restocked multiple times a day. “More than 50 percent of people who try our food come back,” says Saunders.
Still, one would think salads and vending machines mix like oil and water. However, a Farmer's Fridge monitors the temperature of items and locks food that are past their prime. It also monitors sales and collects customer feedback. As a result, the company minimizes food waste by adjusting its stocking algorithms.
Customers not keen on using the fridge's user-friendly touchscreen can take advantage of touch-free pick-up by using the Farmer's Fridge app. Through the app, customers can order ahead, rack up rewards to earn free meals and find their nearest Farmer's Fridge. While selection varies by fridge, the full menu includes 10 salads, 10 bowls and an assortment of healthy snacks.
“Farmer's Fridge is a customer-centric company, so every item starts with customer requests and feedback,” explains Saunders. Internal opinions matter, too. The company’s 246 employees partake in regular testing panels. For recipes Farmer’s Fridge also collaborates with celebrity chefs like Andrew Zimmern, Stephanie Izard and Michael Solomonov. Currently, the company, which also offers home meal delivery service, is selling a butternut squash farro risotto bowl created by Chef Sean Brock.
For meal ingredients, think brand names like Beyond Meat, Mighty Vine tomatoes and BelGioioso Cheese. Much of the produce used comes from Michigan farms. “We adapt our menu based on the seasons and source accordingly,” says Saunders. “Approximately 20-30 percent of our spend comes from suppliers local to our Chicago-based production facility.”
Farmer’s Fridge items tend to be cheaper than their airport and hospital cafeteria counterparts. Most meals cost $10 or less. A North Napa Salad at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York costs $9.49. A Pesto Pasta Bowl at LAX costs $7.99. And a Berries + Granola Greek Yogurt at Northwestern University in Chicago is just $5.49. It's important to Saunders their food offers big nutritional bang for its buck. Every meal includes at least one full serving of fruit or vegetables. Salads have at least two.
Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, told TODAY Food her top pick is the Green Goddess Salad. "It will actually keep you feeling full on your travels," says the nutrition expert and author of The Smoothie Plan." It has 560 calories with dressing, 16 grams of plant protein, and plenty of texture from candied pecans and pickled onions." For a protein-packed, low-sugar breakfast she likes the 310-calorie breakfast bowl.
Not every meal earns her stamp of approval though. The Italian Turkey Wrap combining turkey, pepperoni and cheddar has more than 1100 milligrams of sodium. "It also has 7 grams of saturated fat, which isn’t crazy, but it might not be worth it for a wrap sandwich," says Largeman-Roth. She also cautions against the Falafel Bowl with its 1460 milligrams of sodium. "Flights are dehydrating already, and since it’s tough to drink enough water with your mask on, I’d skip this salty choice."