Fresh Bowl — the New York City-based food technology company that has introduced chef-created vending machines using a “closed loop” reusable container program — has received $2.1 million in a round of seed funding led by venture capital companies, Betaworks and Ground Ventures, with participation from Tuesday and Mana Capital. Venture fund Bling Capital led the company’s first pre-seed round of funding in November 2018.
Launched in July 2019, Fresh Bowl owns a small but growing fleet of vending machines in a mixture of public and private spaces, like transit centers and restaurants, filled with freshly made breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu items like pastas, salads, and warm bowls. They are leading the growing trend of sustainably focused, closed loop reusable container systems.
Calling them the “Red Box of on-the-go meals,” Fresh Bowl founder and CEO Zachary Lawless, said that customers can purchase a menu item from one of four vending machines in Manhattan. Then when they are done with their food, they can return their glass bowl to any Fresh Bowl location and receive a $2 credit toward their next purchase.
“On the surface, it’s a loyalty program geared toward sustainability,” Lawless said. “We can build a direct relationship to the consumer. Every time they purchase or return as product, they’re identifying themselves and we’re able to engage with them and ask questions. It allows us to create a smarter product that has better insight into their consumers.”
Although Fresh Bowl is certainly not the first company to tap into this idea of closed loop container recycling (Blue Bottle Coffee and Dig — formerly Dig Inn – also have reusable bowl programs), unlike their competitors, they have figured out a way to give customers incentive, rather than push any cost onto the consumer.
“The return program does not require a deposit or for you to pay more than the [on average] $8 item you paid for at checkout,” Lawless said. “By building in that cost and making it fun and rewarding, we were able to increase returns by up to 50%. But customers can keep the bowls if they want to.”
According to Lawless, container returns hover around 85% on average. He said that as long as they can get their returns above 50% at every location, then they can beat out the costs of packaging (and having to replace containers that are not returned).
With this round of funding, Fresh Bowl will be building their team and bringing on marketing and sales teams to spread the word. Their goal is to have 50 kiosks open in New York City by the end of the funding period and have 100 locations open in 18 months. Although they’re focused on building the New York City market, Lawless said that future rounds of funding will target kiosk programs for other cities.
So, what’s next for Fresh Bowl?
Lawless said that they have restaurant partnerships in the works and would love to partner with and place kiosks in similar minded restaurant brands like Dig.
“We see Fresh Bowl as a network throughout New York City and other urban markets,” Lawless said. “Fingers crossed, you’ll know us more as a product than just Fresh Bowl itself, whether that’s our farm fresh salads or shelf-stable items like trail mix.”
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