WORCESTER, Mass. – For many college students, a healthy food choice usually means not ordering extra cheese on their pizza during a late-night cram session. At the College of the Holy Cross, a salad-making robot named Sally is hoping to give students better options during non-traditional meal times.
The school recently installed a Sally unit, developed by Hayward, Calif.-based Chowbotics, in the Hogan Campus Center on Holy Cross’ campus. Situated in a high-traffic area of the student center, Sally provides students with customized salad options, prepared automatically via robotics technology.
The Holy Cross installation represents a growing number of deployments for Chowbotics, which last week announced a new CEO, Rick Wilmer, to help the company meet demand for its salad-making machine. The company’s founder, Dr. Deepak Sekar, will remain at the company as president as the company looks to continue its growth. So far this year, the company has doubled its revenue every quarter, deploying Sally systems around the world. Since its founding in 2014, Chowbotics has also raised $17.3 million in funding, the most recent an $11 million round in June 2018.
The robot, a self-standing unit about the size of a vending machine, includes a touch-screen interface on the main panel that lets customers choose several ingredient options for their salad, including fresh vegetables, different lettuce types, protein options (including grilled chicken), and dressings. After selecting their options, customers place a bowl inside the unit to start the process, and the robot prepares the salad by rotating a series of canisters containing the different ingredients and placing it into the bowl. The system does not toss the salad, so customers often just place a cover on the bowl and shake it up themselves.
At Holy Cross, the dining services team was interested in providing late-night healthy food options for students away from the dining halls. The team met with Chowbotics in February 2019 at the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM) show in Orlando to see the robot in action. “We made an appointment with them at the show and got the demo, and said this would be a perfect fit for us on campus to help us with our late-night healthy options,” said Martin Dudek, associate director of dining services at Holy Cross. “From that demo, we started the process to move everything forward.”
While the college has other healthy food options, including a grain bowl station and other retail operations, those usually close down by 9 p.m., so the college wanted to provide a choice for students to get healthy food after 9 p.m., so they wouldn’t resort to snack-food vending machines or ordering delivery items from a local restaurant. The student center location was chosen as it’s a social hub for many students, since they couldn’t put the robot in a residence hall due to limited access for staff if they needed to refill the machine, Dudek said.
The dining services team is currently monitoring the system to gather data on which options students are choosing the most, as well as how often they need to refill the machine when ingredients get low. Sally was installed over the summer, but business increased once students returned to campus. In mid-September, the robot was producing between 40 to 50 salads per day on average. Dudek said the goal was to get the robot to produce up to 75 salads per day.
Temperature control, alerts
The dining services team said the Sally system provides a more hygienic option during the ingredient preparation process, especially when compared to options like a salad bar, where you don’t often know how long the ingredients have been sitting out, and whether customers have avoided the sneeze guard. With the Sally robot, individual ingredients are kept in separate containers before being distributed during a customer’s order. The entire system is also kept at a consistent temperature, with alerts sent to staff if sensors detect temperature changes, or when ingredients run low. In addition, software on the robot provides analytics on usage throughout the day.
Chowbotics said its robots can also prepare breakfast bowls and other non-salad food bowls. At the moment, Holy Cross officials said they are focusing on salad and seeing which options are the most popular with students. In addition to Holy Cross, the Sally robots have been deployed at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the University of Guelph in Canada. The University of Memphis (Tennessee) and Wichita State (in Kansas) are also forthcoming with deployments, Chowbotics said. The Holy Cross deployment aligns with the university’s participation in the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, a working group of scholars and campus dining leaders looking to provide healthier and sustainable food options for students and staff.
Sally’s early days
Ironically, the “salad days” of Chowbotics’ system were not focused on making salads or breakfast bowls, but rather a consumer home appliance. Sekar, the company’s founder, originally wanted to create an automated device that could create Indian food for his family.
“I made this Indian food-making robot, and I was going around showing it to people,” Sekar said in an interview with Robotics Business Review. “I met this guy who owns 15 McDonald’s stores and he said, ‘Why don’t you build a robot for my restaurant instead of a food-making robot for your home?’ His thinking was that restaurants could afford to pay a lot more money than homes, and that logic made sense to us.”
With the Sally robot developed, the company quickly deployed to more than 70 locations across the country, including deployments at colleges like Holy Cross. Sekar said another growing segment for deployment are at cafeterias in hospitals and health care facilities, where patients, visitors and staff members are looking for healthy food options 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I’ve had so many nurses come up to me and say, ‘I used to snack on junk food from vending machines, and it was not good for my health, and now you’re giving me an option where I can get some fresh healthy food, even late at night,’ said Sekar. In addition, many hospitals are avoiding salad bars in their cafeterias because of contamination concerns, which Sally addresses through its separate container system.
While many people see Sally and think it’s just a fancy automated vending machine, Sekar said there is some serious robotics technologies inside, including weight sensors that give feedback to control the motion of ingredient dispensing, so that the right amount of ingredients are placed in the bowl during preparation.
“That’s really the secret sauce of the whole technology, when you think about all of the things that Sally dispenses,” said Sekar. “From the lettuce to the cheese to the dressing, you’ve got so many different types of foods, shapes, textures, and sizes, and having to dispense all of them, reliably, with the right weight and quickly. A lot of our IP comes from that.”
Sekar said Wilmer’s appointment as the new CEO would allow him to focus on developing the company’s next product, which he said should address new types of food beyond bowls. “Since founding Chowbotics in 2014, my goal has been to bring fresh food to all through the proliferation of food robotics,” Sekar said. “Over the past five years, the company has grown significantly, and we are delighted to bring Rick on board to bring the company closer to achieving that goal. This new leadership structure will allow me more time to focus on developing our next product, which I find quite exciting.”