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Once a Nutritional Nightmare, Hospital Vending Machines Evolve to Serve Health Care Workers

With many hospital cafeterias closed and human contact fraught due to the COVID-19 pandemic, healthy vending machine companies are stepping in to fill the void

A person ordering from Farmer’s Fridge in a lobby
Farmer’s Fridge has seen its hospital sales double since March 1, while elsewhere, business has frozen
Farmer’s Fridge

Farmer’s Fridge, a vending machine startup selling plastic jars of fresh food like salads and wraps instead of the usual candy and soda, experienced the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in stages. First, as travel began to slow, sales dropped at its locations in airports like O’Hare and Newark. Next, as offices closed, workers abandoned its whitewashed machines in their lobbies. But at the company’s 97 hospital locations — 56 in the Midwest and 41 in the Northeast, including 24 in New York City — business has doubled since March 1.

CEO Luke Saunders attributes the rise in hospital sales to more and busier health care workers in need of quick meals, particularly as some hospitals have closed their cafeterias to limit the potential spread of COVID-19. To meet mounting demand, over the past few weeks Farmer’s Fridge has added 18 machines at hospitals and care centers from Northwestern Memorial Hospital to New York Presbyterian and the Javits Center field hospital. It’s also stocked 60 mini-fridges in hospital break rooms with free food for staff.

Farmer’s Fridge is now feeding over 30,000 meals a week to health care workers, all at a 25 percent discount (the typical pre-crisis tab was $6.50, but now order sizes are up). “We figure if you’re buying from us now, you really need it,” says Saunders. The company’s efforts have earned praise from nurses, doctors, and other frontline workers. “Just stepped out of the OR and down in the lobby saw this,” one UChicago surgeon tweeted, along with a photo of a Farmer’s Fridge. “I almost cried for joy. Thank you ⁦@FarmersFridge⁩ for keeping the trauma / ICU team fed during #COVID19.”

A fixture of night shifts for health care workers and extended stays for patients’ families, hospital vending machines can be a nutritionist’s nightmare, stocked with chips and sugary beverages. “Traditionally, it was the food of last resort,” says Daniel Stein, co-owner of Mark Vend, a company that operates about 3,000 vending machines throughout the Chicago area — and whose hospital vending machines are among the only ones still attracting customers. But public tastes and health literacy tend to evolve, something that Stein, whose parents started Mark Vend in 1962 as a cigarette vending machine company, knows well. In the past decades, Mark Vend’s offerings have trended healthier, and in 2016, his company invested in Farmer’s Fridge, whose products include smoked cheddar Cobb salads, burrito bowls, and sandwiches on Publican Quality Bread.

Given how fraught human contact has become during the COVID-19 pandemic, vending machines — essentially mechanized clerks that can’t fall ill or take breaks — could find themselves in higher demand. “It’s a very clean, safe transaction,” says Stein. Another company, Chowbotics, whose machines prepare fresh meals, is reportedly in talks to enter grocery stores to replace salad bars that have closed during the crisis. Chowbotics’s presence in hospitals has also doubled since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, from 30 to 60 machines. Even before the pandemic, the vending field was sizable: About 100 million people use vending machines daily, according to the National Merchandising Association, a trade organization that represents the $25 billion “convenience services industry.”

“Through our unique food distribution system, our industry can be the greatest source of ‘contactless’ nourishment to the nation’s doctors, nurses, emergency responders, and truck drivers,” Carla Balakgie, NAMA’s president & CEO, wrote in a March letter to Congress and the White House.

Farmer’s Fridge itself has been in business since 2013, when it opened its first machine in a Chicago food court. Since then, the company has grown to more than 400 locations, pre-crisis, despite considerable consumer skepticism. “Nobody is going to buy lunch from a vending machine” is something that Saunders is used to hearing.

“Normally when you buy something from a vending machine, it’s gone through a process that turns it into something that would survive a nuclear winter,” he says. But while some of the snacks in a Farmer’s Fridge are shelf-stable, most items, like tarragon chicken salad wraps, chia seed pudding, and “Tuscan rotini” with Italian sausage, have a 48-hour shelf life. An engineering team keeps digital tabs on customer orders so the company can predict how to stock machines, and excess food (all sold in sealed containers) is donated to food pantries before it goes bad.

Farmer’s Fridge faced another level of skepticism this fall, when the New York City Department of Health flagged its new fridges in Manhattan, citing concerns about lettuce stored and served by vending machine. After a call from a health inspector, the company voluntarily shut down the 55 NYC fridges it had at the time, while the department puzzled over how to evaluate them. At least one healthy vending machine competitor, NYC-based Fresh Bowl, also closed its machines during this time.

Eventually, a federal inspector paid a visit to the Farmer’s Fridge kitchen in Chicago, where all its food is prepared and packaged. “It’s a whole other level from restaurant safety,” Saunders says of the facility. “People are suited up like they’re going into a microchip lab, you’re wearing multiple layers, it’s cold, and we’re swabbing for microbes around the kitchen every day and washing it down every night.” Food is sealed, then shipped in refrigerated trucks to Farmer’s Fridge machines, whose temperature is tracked remotely. Health inspectors, Saunders says, are usually impressed.

In the end, the NYC health department decided to treat Farmer’s Fridge machines as restaurants, assigning them letter grades for safety. The new classification meant that the company had to apply for modifications to restaurant code requirements, like having a bathroom. “A porta potty next to a vending machine is not a good look,” Saunders says.

In response to COVID-19, Farmer’s Fridge has made some changes to its production and distribution models. Masks were already required at its production facility, but now workers’ stations are spaced farther apart, too. Delivery drivers now disinfect machines and their touch-order screens every time they restock them, and the company began offering home delivery via online ordering. “How people perceive food safety and safety in general has probably evolved a lot in a very short period of time,” says Saunders, and for his company, that could be a good thing.

While the health department’s confusion was initially frustrating, ultimately, it’s been flattering. In the future, Farmer’s Fridge and other healthy vending machine companies want to be seen as the food of first resort for busy workers; not a backup plan for 24/7 service during a crisis, but a winning competitor to fast-food or quick-service restaurants at any given time.

“I spent years telling people not to use the words ‘vending machine,’” says Saunders. “This is restaurant-quality food... And obviously everyone would still look at it and say, ‘No, that’s a vending machine.’ [But] to have a third party be like, ‘No, this is much more like a restaurant than it is like a vending machine, and you should be regulated that way,’ is, I think, a big stamp of approval.”