If you're grabbing lunch from a vending machine, chances are it's a soda, instant noodles and a sad, sad turkey sandwich with neon cheese. If there were a machine full of mixed greens, berries, almonds, flax seeds, organic quinoa and spinach, would you bite?
Luke Saunders, founder of the Chicago-based Farmer's Fridge salad vending machines, is on a mission to make healthful food accessible when you're on the go. And he's planning on bringing the concept to Los Angeles next year.
Saunders' machines dispense plastic jars full of mixed greens, sprouts, beans, homemade dressings and more. He thought of the idea for the machines while working in manufacturing, spending time in factories that processed cereal, granola bars, waffles and other items made for store shelves.
"I was traveling a lot for work and really couldn't find healthy food," he said. "I started thinking about ways to make it more accessible and how I could change the model of how healthy food gets distributed."
Saunders saw a grab-and-go salad at a store while traveling and thought, "I could do that really well." So he decided to take the concept of a fresh salad to-go -- and put it into a vending machine.
Saunders and his team receive produce from two local suppliers in Chicago daily. His employees then start cutting tomatoes, lettuce and more at 3 a.m. in his prep kitchen. By 5 a.m. the salads start coming together in the company's signature plastic jars, and by 8:30 a.m. they are out the door and on their way to machines across the city. Some are in retail public spaces and four are in private offices.
Two of his most popular salads include the Southwest salad, made with romaine lettuce, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, avocado, pico de gallo, corn, black beans, cheddar cheese and a dressing of avocado, lime juice and Greek yogurt; and the Cheater salad made with honey-mustard dressing, hard-boiled eggs, grape tomatoes, romaine lettuce, sunflower seeds, corn, carrots, cucumber and turkey bacon.
"The response generally from people has been that they have really embraced it," Saunders said. "Right now we are trying to convince the next level of consumer -- the ones who are still skeptical about getting their lunch out of a vending machine."
The salads range in price from $5 to $8, and users can also add proteins with chicken, tofu and tuna. The machines also carry cauliflower fried rice, hummus with vegetables and other snacks.
Saunders said he is working to partner with a couple of companies to open his first Farmer's Fridge vending machines in California sometime in the first half of next year.
"Los Angeles is less of a pedestrian culture than Chicago or New York City, and our core value is to prop these up in high foot-traffic areas," he said. "So we've identified some places that may be a good fit."
He said he isn't ready to reveal his Los Angeles locations just yet, but he did share that he's looking into partnering with local farmers when he makes it to Southern California. He'll also have to compete with Burrito Box vending machines -- with fresh burritos, guacamole and sour cream -- at a couple of gas stations. There are also the caviar machines in Beverly Hills and the Sprinkles cupcake ATMs.
"We know everyone is filling up with gas, but a gas station isn't really what we want to be associated with," Saunders said. "But if that's where people are buying their lunch, then we're looking into it."
You should see me massage some kale. Follow me on Twitter @Jenn_Harris_