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Mr. Roboto meets Polk Salad Annie

Chowbotics hopes to deploy Sally the Salad Robot vending machines in break rooms, cafeterias

Holy Jane Jetson.

Picture this. You walk into the breakroom at work and instead of – or in addition to – the tired-looking ham/chicken/egg salad sandwiches and cans of chili, there’s a vending machine chock full of fresh romaine, kale, arugula, snow peas, fresh edamame, cherry tomatoes and more.

Meet Sally the Salad Robot.

Not unlike Jane and George Jetson’s robotic maid, Rosie, in the 1960s cartoon, Sally will serve you a customized, fresh and healthy salad instead of ramen noodles or days-old sandwiches.

Step up to the touch screen and pick from as many as 22 fresh ingredients at a time, plus salad dressing. Or, select from a number of preprogrammed salads. Sally will tell you how many calories and carbs you’ve selected before filling a bowl with lettuce, vegetables and toppings in less than a minute and a half.

The vending machine created by Redwood City, California-based Chowbotics ensures precise calorie counts and keeps ingredients fresh, sanitary and separate, according to the company’s product information.

Sally’s target audience includes workplace cafeterias, restaurants, hotels and other commercial venues.

So, it’s not quite time to have a Rosie – or a Sally – in your own home, but Chowbotics aims to automate repetitive tasks to increase productivity and enable creativity, both in and out of the kitchen, company officials said in a news release. Sally the Salad Robot is the company’s first product and is being shopped around in the Silicon Valley.

“It’s better than salad bar, and it’s safer because … all of the ingredients are contained within the robot so there’s no risk of cross contamination,” said Lib Riddiford, public relations consultant for af&co. restaurant and hospitality consultants.

No worry that someone will grab a handful of croutons without using the tongs or sneeze or cough onto the garbanzo beans or diced chicken.

“Another benefit is not overloading like you do with a salad bar,” Riddiford said. “There are calorie counts on the touch screen that interface for each ingredient you pick. So, if you’re trying to maintain a diet it’s nice to know that you’re walking away with a really healthy product. If you want to do a 500-calorie lunch you can easily do that with Sally.”

The robotic vending machines will be filled and maintained by whatever food provider a given company has, she said.

“And even though they might have a cooling component in a salad bar,” Riddiford added, “the food is still exposed to air. With Sally, the freshness is at a much higher level … and the risk of contamination is so much lower because it’s just one individual instead of exposing ingredients to customers.

“You can’t control what other people do (but) you can control food service workers in terms of washing their hands and wearing gloves.”

Chowbotics’ proprietary technology provides precise calorie counts and protects the integrity of ingredients, keeping them refrigerated, fresh, sanitary and separate and reducing the risk of foodborne illness, the company said.

That remains to be seen.

Trevor Suslow, an extension researcher at the University of California-Davis, said he heard talk of such technology at the Postharvest Unlimited Expo in Madrid this past October.

“They seem to generate a lot of curiosity and seem a nice addition for on-the-go convenience in healthy food choices,” he said.

That said, Suslow noted that the devil is in the details.

“Maintaining high standards of hygiene in pilot trials is certainly a plus, but achieving this in many point-of-purchase venues is a significant challenge as this still requires the diligence of the service employee or contractor,” Suslow said.

“At this time, we have no details upon which to assess the safety of these units, including temperature control, critical time-temperature exceedance limits and failsafe alerts, modern elements of hygienic design and full cleanability of multiple integral parts to deliver multi-component fresh foods and ingredients in a blending array, and intervals of deep cleaning to prevent biofilm establishment.

“Though exceptionally rare,” Suslow said, “inherent contamination of the raw materials and processed materials used to stock the units remain a concern for the industry and consumers.”

Sally’s developers believe they have addressed potential food safety problems. They say Sally is a safer option than salad bars, especially in higher-risk facilities such as schools, retirement homes and hospitals, the developers contend. Fast-casual restaurants, convenience stories, hotels and airports are other potential markets.

Future robots are planned to offer breakfast as well as Mexican and other ethnic foods.

Chowbotics has done Sally trials at Twitter in San Francisco, as well as at Uber and Google, Riddiford said.

“We’re looking to sell directly to the food service director at those companies, who will pick what ingredients to put in,” she said.

Sally retails for $30,000. Companies that buy her will determine the cost of an individual salad, Riddiford said. The salad vending machine has passed Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and NSF-25 safety and sanitation standards, the company said.


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