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How One Chicago Company Is Redefining the Vending Machine

One Company's Bet You'll Buy Their Salad From a Vending Machine 2:00

Luke Saunders had a simple dream: to get tasty, healthy food on the go.

A salesman who traveled across the country in his car for often long periods of time, Saunders grew tired of the high-calorie fast food that was ubiquitous nearly everywhere he traveled.

When he looked for healthier options, he says he was left to choose between often staid salads and low quality frozen vegetables that he found in small town grocery stores and cheap takeout restaurants.

Until, on one business trip, he had a sort of unusual epiphany. What if consumers could purchase salads in vending machines?

The idea perplexed his colleagues at the time, he admits, but Saunders believed he was onto something.

So he left his job, pitched investors and founded "Farmer's Fridge," a food chain with no infrastructure, only machines.

The idea was that customers could buy fresh food at any of a number of kiosks in Chicago — where Saunders lived — and each kiosk would be re-stocked every morning to guarantee the products' freshness. All left over food would be donated to charities.

Two women in Chicago check out a Farmer's Fridge vending machine. NBC News

Saunders installed his first machine in October 2013 at Chicago's Garvey Food Court and the idea gained traction amongst locals. Soon, Farmer's Fridge would have more than 20 machines and a full-time staff based in a Chicago kitchen where all the salads were prepared.

Today, Saunders says the kitchen puts out about 1500 salads daily. Each salad comes in a re-usable mason jar, with the average cost set at eight dollars.

"We kind of threw the rules out the window," Saunders told NBC News. The idea that customers could access a salad in a machine usually associated with salty, unhealthy foods was, Saunders says, radical.

The goal, Saunders said, is to eventually lower prices for the salads and make them more available to low-income Chicagoans who live in so-called "food deserts" — urban areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are in short supply.

"If healthy food is accessible, if it's affordable, are people gonna eat it?" said Saunders. "The answer is absolutely yes."

Farmer's Fridge products. NBC News