Frozen yogurt is one of those healthy but delicious treats that appeals to just about everyone, except perhaps dining operators who have to keep the machinery clean and sanitary while allocating labor hours to serving it.
None of that is a problem for the in-house dining team at Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., thanks to an automated frozen yogurt “robot” installed three months ago that doles out servings of chocolate and strawberry frozen yogurt with a choice of half a dozen toppings such as chocolate and rainbow sprinkles, peanuts, M&M’s, Reese’s Pieces and Fruity Pebbles 24 hours a day and seven days a week. There are two portion sizes, and each offers a choice of two of the available toppings.
"It’s pretty much like a vending machine, but it’s the coolest thing,” enthuses Tony Almeida, RWJ’s director of food & nutrition.
Almeida says he’s gone through the frustrations of maintaining sanitation and enduring lost parts and whatnot with traditional, manual frozen yogurt units because he wanted to offer his customers the cool, tasty treats. Those problems are now history with the robot units because its vendor, Reis & Irvy’s, takes care of replenishment and maintenance.
“All we had to do was give them a space of about six feet by four feet with a 220V outlet,” Almeida says. “We had a little space in a corner of the dining room, so we put it in there and our only expense was running the 220 line. They do the rest—they come in and clean and sanitize the machine and they deal with the Department of Health.”
Because the unit is in a seating area that remains open at all hours, it is always accessible. It transmits transaction data to the vendor, so they know exactly what is selling and when, and when it needs to be replenished. Customers can use either cash or a credit card.
“They asked us to put it in a location that has 24/7 access and it’s really cool because it lets our second and third shifts have access to it too,” Almeida offers. “It’s funny to watch people go over there and see it work. It’s like a little novelty.”
The revenue isn’t huge. RWJ gets 15% of sales on an average of 35 transactions a day, which are five to six dollars apiece, “but then I have nothing to do except collect the money,” Almeida laughs.
“[The vendor]’s happy, I’m happy and the customers are happy,” he summarizes. “It’s a cool little addition that to me looked like a no-brainer, to put in a vending machine for yogurt.”