Farmer’s Fridge and the Internet of Salads

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The Chicago-based startup is scaling up its fresh-made salad vending system, and hopes to see the technology deployed at 100 locations next year.

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In 2013, Luke Saunders' sales job had him constantly on the road, driving up to 1,000 miles around the Midwest each week. Such an occupation takes a toll, and Saunders felt it acutely in his diet. "I could not find healthy grab-and-go foods. I was scheduling my driving trips around which grocery stores I could stay near," he says. "There is a big problem around getting fresh, ready-to-eat foods in a low-volume format."

Realizing that the technology used to remotely monitor and manage vending systems was maturing, Saunders decided that there was an open niche that needed filling. So he quit his job and set about developing an internet-connected vending system that would provide fresh, healthy salads, just about anywhere. He pulled together a team of software developers, designers, chefs and supply chain experts and founded Farmer's Fridge, a network of vending machines that use a cellular modem to a cloud-based point-of-sale (POS) and inventory-control system. The first machine was installed in 2013. These days, there are 60 Farmer's Fridge vending machines deployed throughout Chicago and its suburbs.

A kiosk in the lobby of Chicago's Harold Washington College

Some of the machines are located within grocery stores, while others are in mall food courts, school and hospital cafeterias, and one machine was recently installed at O'Hare International Airport. Each salad is packed into a large recyclable PET plastic jar, reminiscent of a bell jar, and the vending system dispenses the ordered food using a sort of robotic arm. Customers use a touchscreen interface to order, and they pay by credit card.

"Each Fridge [vending machine] contains a PC, which powers the user interface and back-end payment processing," Saunders explains. Each time an item is purchased, the POS software running on the PC transmits the transaction data over the cellular modem, provided by AT&T, to Farmer's Fridge servers, via Amazon Web Services.

Temperature sensors inside the refrigerator are used to ensure that the food is kept at the optimal temperature. "Temperature is critical," Saunders says, calling it the heartbeat of the system. Every minute, the PC pings the temperature sensors inside the fridge. If it detects that the temperature within the unit has hit 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) or higher, the PC sends an out alert, which is routed through to the Farmer's Fridge server, triggering a message to be sent to a team of technicians. If a nearby technician does not arrive and begin performing maintenance on the system in order to determine the problem within a half hour, the POS system automatically locks up and a message appears on the touchscreen, alerting customers that the system is temporarily unavailable. This ensures that customers cannot purchase any items that have been exposed to high temperatures long enough to make them unsafe for consumption.

The stock inside each Farmer's Fridge is managed daily. A delivery driver receives new inventory for each location, based on sales during the previous 24 hours. Upon arriving at each vending location on a route, the driver follows instructions on an app, developed by Saunders' software team, that runs on an Apple iPad connected via a cellular link to the back-end software. The app tells the driver which items to remove from the machine, based on the amount of time they were inside it, as well as which new good to place within, and where to place them. Each jar fits into a notch in the row, so that it can only hold a set number of items. The driver confirms each action he or she takes, using the app, so that the inventory information is updated. (Unsold products removed from the vending machines are donated to food banks.)

It is up to the driver to ensure that the salads are placed in the correct rows, and that none of the notches in a given row are left empty, since there is no mechanism, such as a bar code or an RFID tag, to ensure that each row is accurately and fully stocked.

Saunders says he considered using RFID, but opted instead to rely on the drivers maintaining inventory accurately. "Our core goal is to make the items affordable, so it is not worth it to add 10 cents per container," he states. "Doing so would be more expensive than the cost of having to refund the occasional consumer who gets the wrong salad."

Occasionally, a driver accidentally leaves a spot in a given row empty. If a customer orders the salad in that row, the vending mechanism will automatically move to the row, which will then advance without dispensing any food. Because the payment system does not trigger a charge unless an electronic beam across the dispenser is broken, the customer will not be charged—though he or she will need to select another item.

Each salad is packed into a large recyclable PET plastic jar, reminiscent of a bell jar.

The PC logs each time an item is ordered but not dispensed, and Saunders says that on average, this happens once each week—the exception to thousands of successful weekly transactions. He declines to provide specific sales numbers. The salads are priced at $8 apiece, with proteins (chicken or tofu) dispensed in separate containers for an additional $2.

Saunders says the biggest challenges he has faced so far have involved creating the software infrastructure and scaling up production of the vending machines, which are manufactured in Chicago. However, he adds, the company now has the capacity to manufacture as many as 10 vending machines within a single week. The goal for 2017, he says, is to establish the 100th Farmer's Fridge location.

In January, Farmer's Fridge will launch a mobile app that will allow customers to receive directions to the machine nearest to their current location, and even check if that machine has their favorite items in stock.

Saunders says he endeavors to sell salads that are wholesome and nutritious, just like grandma used to make—except that "grandma" is now an internet-connected vending machine that accepts major credit cards and will soon be reachable by smartphone.