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Fresh Food Served From A Vending Machine

Lily Merritt
Luke Saunders visits Farmer's Fridge in the Chase Tower lobby in Milwaukee.

There’s something new on Milwaukee’s food scene. This isn't your typical vending machine - spewing out candy bars and chips, instead it serves up from-scratch meals.

Farmer’s Fridge is the brainchild of Chicago-based entrepreneur Luke Saunders. Within the sleek machine is a collection of colorful salads and snacks. And, selections shift with the seasons.

Saunders says the fridge customers see today looks nothing like his initial prototype. “The first-ever fridge was actually in my apartment. I went to Best Buy and bought a refrigerator and filled it full of salads."

He's an incubator-kind-of-guy, but didn’t set out to market from-scratch food. After finishing college, Saunders took on a variety of jobs, including a stint as a traveling salesman. That’s when his entrepreneurial light ignited.

“My biggest challenge on the road was where I could find wholesome delicious food that was fresh and healthy,” the 31 year old explains.

Saunders thought -- why not build a business around his personal quest?

Credit Farmer's Fridge
The first installation. "I have a fondness for that location. I actually even rented a scissor lift and painted the whole wall behind it. We had plants on the fridge and this big mat of AstroTurf in front of it to make it feel more inviting." Luke Saunders.

Three dozen refrigerated vending machine prototypes later, Saunders convinced a food court in downtown Chicago to test his creation.

That was four years ago. At the time Farmer’s Fridge was butting up against established fast food chains.

“It was between a McDonald’s, a Dunkin' Donuts and a Subway. It was the only place in Chicago that would take me because at the time the idea that you could restaurant-quality meal from an automated fridge, people were telling me it made no sense,” he remembers.

Starting up, Saunders fetched the ingredients, prepped dishes and stocked the fridge, himself.

“Frankly when I started the order was so small, I had to go to the produce place. So I was sitting there in my Subaru at 2 in the morning waiting for them to load my car up,” he says.

Today a staff of 80 makes the business hum – some prep food, others deliver it to nearly 90 sites around Chicago, and now about a dozen in Milwaukee.

“We manage over 140-plus ingredients (for example) using seafood that’s been approved by Monterey Bay.” Saunders adds, “We actually make the food overnight and deliver it overnight.”

There are snacks and salads – salmon nicoise to pineapple coconut chia pudding. 

Saunders passes along anything that doesn’t sell within a day to area food pantries. “So 100 percent gets donated. That’s been true from day one,” he says.

This conversation with Luke Saunders aired on Lake Effect on Thanksgiving, November 23rd.

Local certified nutrition consultant Barbara Heinen saw a Farmer’s Fridge for the first time earlier this week on the UWM campus.

“It’s really appealing, it’s fun to see fresh ingredients,” she says.

Credit Shorewood Farmers Market
Barbara Heinen at the Shorewood Farmers Market.

Heinen co-founded the Shorewood Farmers Market. She lives and breathes access to healthy, affordable food for all.

“The three things I hear over and over and over again is I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough money and I don’t know how to use this food. I don’t recognize it. It’s not a skill that I was raised with,” Heinen says.

She says Farmers Fridge helps solve the preparation time challenge.

According to Heinen, the only thing better would be Milwaukee creating its own version of the refrigerated vending machines. “Imagine urban farms growing that and then having people here that are trained in food skills putting this together and creating deliver jobs,” she says.

Heinen might have hit on an unintended benefit of Luke Saunders’ creation. He appears to be serving up equal portions of nutritious food and inspiration.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>