New York-based Fresh Bowl – which was co-founded by Zach Lawless and Chloe Vichot in 2018 and launched in 2019 – currently operates five machines in high foot traffic locations in Manhattan, a figure Lawless aims will increase to 100 within 18 months. The food is currently made at a commissary kitchen in Tribeca that can serve up to 50 machines in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but by the end of the year it aims to be in a larger kitchen that can serve upwards of 100 machines.
Venues vary from office lobbies to college campuses and subway stations, with the focus on public locations. Private tenants are often willing to subsidize, while larger foot traffic locations tend to take a percentage of sales, Lawless told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We’re developing partnerships with large real estate operators and public organizations so that we can create programs for distribution rather than just picking up one-off locations.”
‘You get $2 credit on your next purchase if you return the jar’
As far as the fresh vending concept goes, Fresh Bowl is following in the footsteps of brands such as Chicago-based Farmer's Fridge, which remote connects to its machines and monitors sales in real time, learns from the data, and manages inventory such that waste is kept to a minimum.
“Some of the products have a shelf life of only five days but our spoilage is still very low,” added Lawless.
Aside from changing perceptions about what you can sell from a vending machine, however, Fresh Bowl is seeking to blaze a trail when it comes to building a closed loop system with the use of reusable glass containers that can be returned for a $2 credit towards the user's next purchase.
“This is a key point of difference for us," explained Lawless.
"You get $2 credit on your next purchase if you return the jar. So when you return the first one, you scan the empty jar, a door opens and when it closes, it asks you for your cell number [assuming you want to get your credit]. When you check out, you login through your cell number and it puts your credits towards your next purchase. You also get a text saying, hey, thanks for returning the jar, and we might ask you to rate your meal, or give us feedback.
“Through that we can track purchasing behavior and get feedback. Not only are we getting an 85% return rate, but we’re also getting a really high response rate to the text messages and building a direct relationships with our customers.
“The more locations we have, we also think we’re more likely to get returns. We joke internally that we’re the RedBox of food [Redbox specializes in DVD rentals via automated retail kiosks]. They said that close to a third of their returns are at different locations [vs where the originally purchase was made], so we are hoping that we can build that network effect and get our return rates even higher.”
The jars can be re-used more than 100 times before they are recycled
The jars can be reused more than 100 times in the Fresh Bowl network before they are recycled, he added, noting that while glass is heavier than plastic to transport, it represented a more sustainable choice. (The jars have unique identifiers enabling Fresh Bowl to track how many times they have been re-used and when they need to be taken out of circulation and recycled.)
“Brands like Farmer’s Fridge allow you to return their plastic jars and they will recycle them for you, but they are still single use," said Lawless. "We are washing and re-using our glass jars over and over.”
Fresh Bowl was founded by Zach Lawless and Chloe Vichot, who used to run a café in Manhattan selling healthy salads in glass jars. Lawless approached her about the idea of expanding to vending machines, and Fresh Bowl was born.
We want it to be rewarding and positive, not a burden
He added: “The question has always been how do we really create a rewarding sustainability system that people will engage with, so we’re constantly iterating as it’s a new and undervalued consumer behavior and there are lots of different return systems out there. We want it to be rewarding and positive, not a burden.
“There are other approaches out there where there is a lot of pre-meditation required to participate, if you have to bring your own containers from home for example, or you’re paying a hefty deposit. We’re saying, we’ll do all the heavy lifting, you just make your purchase.”
Right now the lids are made from recycled plastic, but the firm is transitioning to metal, he said. “Our goal is to be plastic free and zero waste by the end of the year.”
*According to Fresh Bowl, the lead investors were joined by “additional, mission-aligned investors,” and Bling Capital, which led its $625k pre-seed round in November 2018.
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