We tried 3 meals from a vegan vending machine that's about to blow up the fast-food scene -- here's the verdict

  • leCupboard dispenses healthy, personalised, prepared meals out of machines.
  • We tried out three leCupboard dishes — two meals and a dessert — and the taste blew us away.
  • Founder Lamiaa Bounahmidi believes the startup helps address nutritional problems that arise when people choose convenience over health.

Lamiaa Bounahmidi may have a solution to your diet woes: a vending machine.

Bounahmidi is leading a San Francisco-based startup called leCupboard, which dispenses healthy, personalised, prepared meals out of vending machines. The startup’s goal is to get people to think differently about healthy food by making it as convenient as fast-food.

Customers simply press a button on one of the machines — which Bounahmidi calls “cupboards” — and out comes a vegan snack or meal in a reusable glass container. The dishes range in price from $US6-$US13, and most are high in protein and whole grains.

LeCupboard’s seven locations are all in downtown San Francisco, in semi-private spaces like coworking areas, schools, and hospitals.

My leCupboard taste test

On a recent visit to one vending machine, I ordered and sampled three different items, each of which was filling enough to stand on its own.

Bounahmidi recommended I start with a lighter dish as a sort of appetizer, then try a more filling main course, followed by a dessert. I tapped my selection on leCupboard’s touch screen, and was able to enter any dietary restrictions. Options included “avoid gluten” and “avoid nuts” — if I had used it, the feature would have excluded options that included those ingredients — but since I don’t have Celiac or an allergy, I skipped that step.

Within 30 seconds, my first entree came out ready to eat.

Each leCupboard dish comes with a label that lists ingredients and lays out its nutritional profile, including fibre, protein, and what leCupboard calls “healthful” fat, a tweak to standard nutrition labels that aligns with the latest nutritional science on fat. Healthy main dishes get labelled “Build,” while desserts — which mostly rely on ingredients like nuts and fruit — get labels like “Indulge.”

My first item mimicked a poke bowl, the popular raw fish dish. But because leCupboard’s food is all vegan, my selection featured beets instead — a substitution that made me sceptical. After gingerly skewering a forkful of beet and some veggies, I took a bite.

The flavours — lemon, seaweed, vegetable, delicious — danced on my palate. It was so good. I asked Bounahmidi how she had performed this magic trick.

The beets, she explained, were glazed in a lemon marinade then paired with a vegetable that tastes a bit like seaweed. A light carpet of black rice rounded out the dish, and a creamy, spicy sauce gave it some kick.

“I love cooking, and the flavours are designed to be craveable; to be satisfying. Just like any other food,” Bounahmidi said.

Convenience over health

As she sees it, the reason most of us struggle to eat well is that convenient options usually only offer unhealthy food.

“We focus so much on what we’re eating on the weekends when we’re out with friends and then feel guilty for having dessert or over-eating, when really the problem isn’t what we’re eating on two days of the week — it’s what we’re eating on the other five,” she said.

With more than 100 meal-delivery apps to choose from across the US, it’s easy to see why many people no longer leave their offices for lunch. And those who work especially demanding hours or have more than one job often don’t have time to prepare or seek out a healthy lunch. In a recent survey, some 62% of professionals said they typically ate lunch at their desks, a phenomenon that’s heralded social media hashtags (#saddesklunch) and new social science vocabulary (“desktop dining”).

Most of “our choices aren’t actually choices. They’re made because they’re convenient,” Bounahmidi said.

In this context, vending machines — a technology that has barely changed since it was introduced as the “Automat” in 1912 — are booming. Since 1995, the number of vending machines in the US has grown 96% to a whopping 5.1 million, according to the New York Times.

The main course

Next up was my main dish: a falafel bowl inspired by Bounahmidi’s visits to Cairo. Like the others, it came in a reusable glass container that can be returned to the leCupboard staff at their Cafe location for a refund of $US3. Eventually, Bounahmidi envisions that a second machine next to the first will allow customers to return their dishes and get their refunds automatically.

This dish was also delightful, but I think I’d heat the falafel next time for a slightly better flavour. Overall though, it exceeded my expectations. The freshness of the tomatoes and crunchiness of the kale shone through, and the falafel was savoury and filling.

Bounahmidi said health is at the center of leCupboard’s mission. The initiative is the customer-facing portion of a public benefit corporation Bounahmidi founded called Looly, which has raised over $US2 million in funding according to AngelList. She is currently working on a pilot project with several hospitals to design meals for people with specific dietary needs, including Celiac disease, Crohn’s, and diabetes.

I finished off my meal with a dessert called “le Versailles” — a plant-based chocolate mousse sprinkled with sea salt, raspberries, and pistachios.

As a chocolate lover, this was my favourite part of the meal. The mouse was light and fluffy but rich, and the salt on top gave the chocolatey sweetness a hint of savoury — my favourite combination. I could honestly see myself eating this at least once a week. And I’d be more than happy to eat the rest of the meals that often as well, as long as I could get $US3 off the retail price after I return my glass container.

For that to happen, though, I’ll have to wait until leCupboard expands to some public locations, a goal Bounahmidi aims achieve within the next few weeks.

“On our lunch breaks we go down the street to what’s easy and cheap,” she said. “This solves that.”

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