Farmer’s Fridge offers fresh, healthful Chicago-made food in culinary deserts

Lyla

At the end of October, I found myself zipping down to Dallas for a story. A quick 24-hour jaunt. Arriving the evening before, I met my sister for dinner at a fabulous restaurant called Roots Southern Table, gorged on collard greens and cast iron cornbread served with sweet potato butter, then jerk lamb chops and orange juice cake.

The next morning, with that huge Southern dinner still under my belt, breakfast was a Clif bar eaten on the run. Lunch was spent talking to people in the rain. Then boom, back to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, trucking through Terminal E about 3 p.m., heading toward a 5 p.m. flight home. It dawned on me that if I didn’t want to subsist on a foil bag of pretzels tossed at me by an unhappy flight attendant, now was the moment to root out something to eat.

What were my options? A big soft salt-crusted dough twist drenched in hot cheese-like product from Auntie Anne’s Pretzels? A Chick-fil-A sandwich which, setting aside the moral qualms of supporting haters, raises gustatory objections that my wife succinctly summarizes whenever we pass one, in a tone of mingled wonder and disgust: “Breaded chicken … served on bread?!”

Hurrying along, I was just thinking that the path of prudence would be to eat at home when I approached a wood-tone vending machine. A Farmer’s Fridge, stocked with large jars of salad.

A Farmer’s Fridge machine in the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Part of the challenge to attracting customers, founder Luke Saunders said, is convincing dubious consumers that the food is fresh. When the company started in 2013, the machine veneer was real wood.

A Farmer’s Fridge machine in the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Part of the challenge to attracting customers, founder Luke Saunders said, is convincing dubious consumers that the food is fresh. When the company started in 2013, the machine veneer was real wood.

Neil Steinberg / Sun-Times

I love salad and eat one almost every day for lunch. Finding salad on this soul-dead airport causeway was like encountering a real twice-boiled bagel in Indiana.

I selected the Harvest salad — lettuce, dried cranberries, pecan couscous — for only $9.49. I poured in the balsamic vinaigrette dressing and gave the thing a shake, and ate in silent joy. For dessert, chocolate raspberry chia pudding.

While contemplating an actual real fresh raspberry in my dessert, bought from an airport vending machine, a memory from almost a decade ago bubbled up: These jars, dispatched to the paper to ballyhoo some local startup. An endeavor I was certain would go bust trying to sell healthful food to a nation addicted to bread sandwiches.

Farmer’s Fridge didn’t go broke.

“We are now in 20 markets, from California and Texas to the Northeast, and all across the Midwest,” said founder Luke Saunders. “About 700 locations, between Fridges and retail stores — Target, Albertsons, Jewel-Osco. Starting next week, we’ll be in 14 major airports.”

And this is after the COVID-19 slam caused Saunders’ company to lose 87% of its revenue in March 2020.

“We’re primarily in hospitals, airports, universities, offices,” he said. “The only thing we had left were hospitals, and even they weren’t letting people move around.”

So Farmer’s Fridge launched a home delivery program, partnered with retailers and got back to 100% of pre-pandemic sales within four months. They expect 2023 to triple the size of their 2019 business.

“We were able to survive and thrive,” Saunders said.

That isn’t the amazing part. Ready? The salad I ate in Dallas hadn’t been farmed out to some Texas contract kitchen, as I assumed, but prepared a few days earlier in Chicago. It wasn’t flown, it was — mirabile dictu — trucked to Dallas, a 15-hour drive to sell something in an airport.

About 80 of the 300 Farmer’s Fridge employees are drivers.

“The way it works, we make all the food in a central kitchen by Midway Airport, our own cold chain logistics, dedicated refrigerated long-haul trucks,” said Saunders.

When the food is being prepared, they don’t know its destination.

Luke Saunders, 36, was a traveling salesman who struggled to find healthful food while on the road. He founded Farmer’s Fridge in Chicago in 2013.

Luke Saunders, 36, was a traveling salesman who struggled to find healthful food while on the road. He founded Farmer’s Fridge in Chicago in 2013.

“Our core innovation is, we’re making all this food today but don’t have any idea where it’s going,” Saunders said. “At dinnertime, we run allocations, an algorithm that says what the inventory is across the network.”

I figured that they must be pitching out a lot of spoiled salads — they last less than a week. But Saunders said their waste is in the low single digits.

“Our target is under 5%,” he said.

Space is running out and I left out the really amazing part. After I finished my salad and pudding and slid aside the very low-tech hatch to push the used jars inside to be recycled, I did something that surprised even me. I popped in another $6 for another chocolate raspberry chia pudding. When was the last time you went back to a vending machine for seconds? It was that good.

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