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How They Did It

How to Start a Salad Vending Machine Business

Farmer's Fridge Salads © Farmer's Fridge

How do you launch a line of ingenious vending machines to dispense delicious salads? Luke Saunders, a former traveling salesman, got the idea for Farmer’s Fridge on business trips when he couldn’t find anything decent to eat. He wanted a kiosk stocked with sustainably sourced salads in environmentally responsible containers, at a reasonable cost. After many trials, in October 2013 Saunders powered up his first machine at Chicago’s Garvey Food Court. As of April 2014, he is up to 20 machines and counting. The salads are made fresh every day. Sold in reusable Mason jars, they start at $7. Additional proteins like canned tuna and organic chicken start at $2. Every day before the machines are restocked, whatever remains unsold goes to Chicago-area food pantries. Here, Saunders shares 10 steps to salad-vending success.

1. Get your spouse’s backing. “In early 2013, my wife was finishing up law school. She knew I’d been wanting to start my own business, and suggested I give it a shot as soon as she graduated that summer.”

2. Learn from experts, part 1: “Part of what planted the seed for me was watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution TV show in the UK, when I was there on business. I identified so much with that idea of making healthy food accessible. On the show he kept going to new places to retrain an entire kitchen. I kept thinking how it could go so much better if they could do all the cooking in one place and ship it out. But I knew nothing about commercial food production.”

3. Learn from the experts, part 2: “When my wife and I were living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we’d been admiring from afar a cafe called the Juicy Kitchen, which sold meals to go. The food reminded me of my mom’s: healthy, basic, balanced. In February 2013, I asked the owner, Susan [Todoroff], if she could show me the ropes. I worked with her for about six weeks before we moved to Chicago. I also worked in a commercial kitchen for a week. Susan gave me the foundation to build the business. She also showed me the building blocks of a main-course salad: dairy, nuts, heartier vegetables, sometimes fruit, and different kinds of lettuce. Once I realized I could do it and make money on it, then I focused on building the machine and the packaging. And a million things in between.”

4. Design the machine with creative partners. “I’m not a mechanical engineer, but I was doing a lot of engineering work in my previous job, so I understood the basics of how a machine should work. I originally thought I could design my own. Instead I found I could modify existing vending equipment. The hardest part was the reclaimed wood exterior. It took me a while, but I found a creative local carpentry company willing to give it a shot. We spent a week together figuring out how to vent the machine properly, making sure everything was lined up, but we got it done.”

5. To pick the best salad vessel, listen to others. “The hardest piece was finding the right container. Every option I tried either leaked, hid the ingredients, ruined the lettuce or had some other problem. One day, my brother-in-law told me, ‘You need to take a look at this Mason jar salad thing going around on Pinterest.’ Evidently, people had been posting pictures of salads they’d assembled inside Mason jars. At first I thought, No one wants to eat salad out of a jar! Then I tried it, and it solved every problem.”

6. Stack your salads with an eye to color. “The real benefit to the jars is that you can see all of the ingredients immediately. When someone walks up, they want to see each thing. So we put a lot of effort into how we layer the salads. We vary the colors as much as possible. We’d never put the peas next to the broccoli, for example, because it would look like one big green mess. We put a layer of carrots in between. It’s not rocket science, but it’s very important.”

7. Plates or no plates? Again, listen to others. “When we first opened, I was anti-plate—they added to the cost, and created more waste. But everyone kept suggesting them. We’ve added biodegradeable brown paper plates that are actually more like the hot dog trays they give you at the ballpark, with a two-inch rim. We pack the salad dressings in small plastic containers inside the jar. Customers can toss the salad with the dressing on the plate.”

9. Pick your first location patiently. “Once I had the business plan ready, the food safety certificate and the salads worked out, I still had nowhere to put the machine. I thought it would be a no-brainer: I was offering to pay a landlord for a space they weren’t using, to install a box that could make them more money. (Although I was faking it a little bit: I had no idea if anyone would buy a salad from a machine!) I started walking around Chicago. It turned out, most places feared that a vending machine would jeopardize their bigger deals with storefront restaurants. Finally, the Garvey Food Court took a chance on us. As luck would have it, they host a lot of independent vendors where adventurous people can get Korean barbecue, pho, tacos or the best ribs. To those people, trying a salad out of a kiosk was no big deal. I didn’t even realize it, but that was the perfect place to install our first machine.”

10. Grow carefully. “Going from two machines from 20 was an enormous challenge. The main priority for me is to maintain our quality. I can tell you right now, if I sold an unhealthy option, we would have more sales than we do. But I didn’t want to just start a business, I wanted to solve a problem. I would love to be a national brand. But our next stage is to build out the network in Chicago. Once we have a solid feel for what works and what doesn’t here, then I might go out and find people to partner with in other cities.”

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