What’s the best way to get a quick, healthy meal at work without waiting in line or spending a fortune? If you pose that question to 10 of your friends, chances are at least a few will immediately point to Farmer’s Fridge. The Chicago-based company launched in 2013 with a single vending machine that offered fresh, handmade meals, mostly packaged in jars; it’s since grown into a multi-city operation serving thousands of customers each day.

The vision behind Farmer’s Fridge originated from its founder’s experience as a traveling salesman. Luke Saunders struggled to find healthy and delicious food while on the road, and he wanted to find a solution to that problem. Thus was born the idea for a vending machine that dispenses salads, sandwiches, soups, and other products, made with high-quality and often local ingredients.

Initially, property managers who controlled the spaces where these fridges might go thought Saunders' efforts were a waste of time. But finally, he managed to place one machine in a food court at Clark and Lake; within a couple of weeks, he knew that the idea was a success.

In its early days, Farmer’s Fridge ran out of a shared kitchen space and produced 30 or so meals a day. Today, the company runs approximately 215 fridges, operates a restaurant inside Revival Food Hall, and produces more than 10,000 items daily. All product arrives to its kitchen on a daily basis, sourced from direct supplies or partner distributors like Local Foods or Sysco. 

Getting all those items to customers while maintaining their freshness isn’t easy. Technology plays a large supporting role: Every day, an algorithm examines every vending machine and gathers data on what sold. This process determines which products, and how many, get shuttled to each location to best cater to customers’ wants.

After the computers do their magic, the company’s drivers deliver products all night long, from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., so the food is ready for purchase in the morning. Customers can see which items are available at each fridge through an app and even reserve food in advance. All unsold meals are donated to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

A funny trend emerged in Farmer’s Fridge’s early days: “About half the customers didn’t love the food,” Sanders says. “They went because it was convenient.” So as the company expanded, it emphasized taste and innovative, chef-driven items. Today, a Farmer’s Fridge sandwich is made on Publican Quality Bread using prime meats; a salad is made using the freshest produce available.

Farmer’s Fridge has already entered the Milwaukee market, and Saunders hopes to introduce its jars to the rest of the Midwest. The company received a big chunk of venture capital funding in September that will help it continue to expand. “The goal hasn’t changed,” Saunders says. “We want to make fresh, healthy meals more accessible.”