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Get to know vending machine guru Luke Saunders

Why Saunders?

With no food experience beyond his own kitchen but plenty eating less-than-desirable meals on business trips, Saunders saw a niche to fill. In 2013, combining his entrepreneurial prowess (he started a bike-rental company in college) and manufacturing background, he launched the first Farmer’s Fridge vending machine, selling fresh salads and healthy snacks, in Chicago.

Business has boomed, adding 19 more temperature-controlled machines locally and growing to a six-person staff. Stocked daily with high-quality to-go meals any time of day, the machines often trump nearby fast casuals during the lunch hour.

What are the challenges of operating vending machines?

The biggest challenge is managing inventory. We only get one shot at it every day. We either sell what we’ve sent out, or it gets donated. Location is also tough. You can fit a machine almost anywhere, but it’s such a new concept that it’s hard to peg what will work. Right now, we have a metric for the density of a neighborhood, amount of foot traffic and proximity to offices. There’s also a lot of technology and maintenance involved, which is where my manufacturing background comes in handy; I can and often do fix
machines myself.

Does high-end vending mean a shift away from traditional foodservice?

We are a supplement; we are the less expensive way to have an in-building food option for those who can’t support a cafeteria.

Who are your competitors?

We’re up against any healthy fast-casual concept in Chicago. But the health-food category is growing, and there’s room.

Do vending machines offer an opportunity for traditional operators, like food trucks have?

There’s a high start-up cost, and you need a lot of machines to make it worth it. Restaurants already have a lot of overhead associated with a single location, and kiosks would cannibalize sales from that location.

What’s your vision for the future?

Right now, [we’re] trying different things and building a profile of what works and what doesn’t. Once that’s down, and we can successfully replicate it, we’ll expand in Chicago and beyond. Ultimately, I’d like anyone in the city to be able to have a kiosk within a five-minute walk or be able to drive to one in five minutes in the suburbs. ... We want to be a part of the future of foodservice.

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