A robot is making salads in the Hogan Campus Center of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Located in the facility’s Cool Beans coffee shop, the automated unit called Sally the Robot from vendor Chowbotics creates and dispenses either set-menu salads like chicken Caesar (currently the top seller) or custom salads a customer can design using ingredients from the 22 product canisters situated inside the unit.
Launched in early September, the unit complements the Cool Beans unit and another Hogan Center food outlet called Crossroads located a floor below, which serves fare like pizzas and deli sandwiches as well as salads and grain bowls. Crossroads closes at 9 p.m. daily, so Sally is especially valuable between that time and 1 a.m., when the Hogan Center closes, as well as when Crossroads is especially busy, when the robotic unit gives students looking for a salad an alternative source.
“One reason we looked at this was because it’s a very healthy option for a vending machine, especially for students at all hours,” says Linda Nardella, director of Holy Cross Dining. “We especially wanted a healthier option for late night, when something like a salad isn’t [otherwise] available.”
The unit averages 20 to 30 transactions a day at the moment, “but we’re talking about doing some promotions to get that up some more,” says Marty Dudek, assistant director of operations. “It can definitely handle more, either at lunch or especially late night.”
The Sally unit contains three lettuce choices, diced chicken, eight to 10 vegetable options plus dressings. Everything is in individual canisters (except the dressings, which are in squeeze bottles) so there is no contact before a salad is composed.
When a customer makes a selection, the different ingredients are dispensed into a serving bowl in set portions, something that also allows accurate nutritional information for the salad to be displayed. The process takes about a minute per salad depending on how complex it is. Payment can be made either with a commercial credit card or meal plan dining dollars.
The Holy Cross Dining program is still in the process of getting a feel for which of Sally’s ingredients are more likely to deplete quicker so restock activities can be adjusted accordingly, Dudek says. Currently, replenishing is done toward the end of the day unless there’s a particularly heavy rush on the unit around lunch.
Monitoring is automatic as the unit signals the staff to alert it whenever the stock on any particular item gets low (or is nearing its expiration), so there’s always a real-time inventory count available. Replenishment is made from a production kitchen located inside the Hogan Center, so the logistics are not difficult.
In addition to monitoring stock levels, Sally keeps automatic tabs on expiration times for each ingredient, shutting it off from being dispensed to customers once it reaches that limit. The unit also continuously monitors its internal temperature, shutting down if it hits a temperature deemed too high to maintain product safety.