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Not as fresh, but definitely direct: meet your building’s newest amenity

Fresh Direct vending machine
Dinner within reach: Fresh Direct's new vending machine

Proving yet again that New Yorkers don’t want to turn on the stove, Fresh Direct, which usually delivers, is now moving in. The popular grocer has unleashed a brigade of residential-bound refrigerated vending machines, loaded with its popular 4-Minute Meals. Its sights? The empty space next your building’s mailboxes or laundry room.

What’s in them? Chicken enchiladas from Rosa Mexicano, Parmesan risotto from Terrance Brennan, as well as healthy options from FD’s in-house Smart & Simple line, and vegetarian dishes courtesy of EatingWell magazine’s recipe archive. (These promise to top out at 500 calories.) Fresh Direct already sells up to 31,000 of these meals a week from its Long Island City based kitchen, so this marks a new era of on-demand dining.

This Tuesday night at the Solaire, a full-service rental building in Battery Park City, scores of residents mingled in the lobby during a Fresh Direct tasting event. Samples of the 15 meals currently available in the vending machine (the selection changes every 4-6 weeks), were passed by caterers, and wine and cheese platters were also offered. With the exception of the bland vegetarian pasta dish, everything else was surprisingly delicious, which is a tad disconcerting given that it’s scooped from a container reminiscent of Maison du Delta Airlines. What felt like a fundraiser cocktail party was a welcome-to-the-building party for the vending machine.

“The Solaire and the Westport near Columbus Circle are part of our pilot program,” explained Abraham Ghelman, a retail location manager with Fresh Direct. “How quickly we expand into other residential buildings will depend on our success here.” The vending machines are already in 40 corporate buildings, starting with Goldman Sachs, proving that, despite popular belief, the bankers don’t dine daily on filet mignon.

Garlic Chili Wild Alaskan Halibut with Coconut Rice

But is dinner from a vending machine the death of the civilized family meal or is it a realistic solution for time-pressed New Yorkers? The portion-controlled meals—each contain 4-6 ounces of protein—represent a healthier option than many types of take-out. (Nutritional info sheets are on the machine and online.)

And at $6-10 per entrée, FD meals end up being cheaper than take-out once you factor in tax and tip. The vending-machine meals are cooked just shy of completion and sealed with BPA-free polypropylene, and your four-minute microwave zap completes the cooking process.

But just how fresh are the meals? The chefs, headed up by Nobu Next Door alum Tina Bourbeau, prepare them the evening before delivery. So when they arrive in vending machines they are 12-15 hours old. From there, most have an expiration date of 2-4 days, so, worst case, your meal is five days old. From a food safety standpoint it’s safe, but to be this direct, the food’s definitely less fresh.

Part of Fresh Direct’s pitch is that the meals are “nutritionist-approved,” though we wonder if this includes the Presto Italiano four-cheese ravioli. “With our corporate accounts, the healthier options are the least popular,” says Ghelman. “Especially on the late shift when people want something filling and heavy that will take care of them for hours.”

So, do people eat differently at home?

Early findings give hope: The whole-wheat spaghetti with vegetarian meatballs is already the second most popular entrée at the Solaire, according to Ghelman. The halibut, which proved delicious at the tasting event, ranked 12 out of 15, and the salads placed last. With the fish options there are multiple hurdles to overcome, acknowledges Ghelman, “It’s a vending machine, it’s microwavable, it’s fish out of a vending machine.”

Would you buy dinner from a vending machine? Tell us, here?