Last week on QSRweb sister site, Pizza Marketplace, one Washington State pizza restaurateur discussed his hopes to use a soon-to-be-installed automated pizza assembly line to grow his Zaucer brand in earnest. Now all the way across the country in Louisiana, southeastern U.S. salad QSR, Salad Station, is hoping its use of Chowbotics, Inc.'s Sally, the salad-making robot — through a partnership with Houston-based salad robot contractor, RoboFresh — will give that brand the same sort of of shot of restaurant "growth hormone" needed to make the chain a household name.
The brand's current president, Scott Henderson, and his business partner and mom, Cindy Henderson, founded the Louisiana-based salad-centered chain that now has about 20 locations across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The two have a family legacy of farming and see the brand as a great way to bring some of the best and freshest of those products to the restaurant audience.
But they also see the addition of the robot as a great way to expand. In fact, Salad Station recently signed a deal to bring 100 salad-making robot kiosks to Houston in the next three years in a play that the chain hopes will both generate overall brand awareness and help it to contend with a tight real estate market.
Ultimately, Salad Station leadership expects to bring five brick-and-mortar restaurants to Greater Houston over the same period, with more than 40 more in the next decade, according to a brand spokeswoman. The Salad Station's kiosk version will start popping up in medical centers, business offices, apartment complexes, transportation venues and other places where leaf-seeking customers might cross paths with it.
According to Scott Henderson, brand leaders also see the kiosks as a good extension of an overall mission to help customers bring "purpose" to their salad bowls by using the chain's self-serve, pay-by-the-pound approach to address the enormous global problem of food waste, while also supporting franchisees with a lower-cost labor option.
So now, in addition to Salad Station's brick-and-mortar stores boasting 100 toppings, a hot bar and other gourmet salad accoutrement, these salad-building robots can either be added to in-store offerings or serve as standalone kiosks, as we learned in a recent Q-and-A with Henderson, and Salad Station Head of Franchise Development John Mike Heroman.
Q: Scott, can you just get things going by explaining how the salad-making robot works at The Salad Station?
Henderson: A customer uses a touchscreen to build their salad by choosing up to two lettuces, six toppings, and one dressing for a suggested retail price of $8. Once completed, Sally lets the customer know the nutritional value and asks for payment. (Then) ... a customer inserts a bowl and Sally starts to spin internally and dispense the individual ingredients. Once complete, Sally alerts the customer and then asks for feedback.
Q: One of the first things I wonder about is how food quality and safety is maintained in a machine that is continually handling perishable food items and dispensing them directly to the diner. How is that level of safety maintained with the robot?
Henderson: Canisters for ingredients are air-tight. Sally stays at an internal temperature of 35 degrees. If (the robot) goes above 41 degrees for more than five minutes, (it) becomes disabled. Ingredients are installed with an expiration date. If an item expires, it will no longer be a menu selection.
Q: I noticed the robot includes glass hoppers containing the individual salad ingredients. Does that play a role in both marketing and customer reassurance that their salads are made with fresh, safe ingredients?
Henderson: Yes, we want the customer to be able to view the freshness of the product. There is a button that allows Sally to spin the ingredients so the customer can view.
Q: So on that mention of customers, I turn to you John Mike to tell us how customers have responded to the kiosks, thus far, both within fixed-location stores and freestanding?
Heroman: Getting people comfortable and using the machine is one of our top priorities. The number one question that we get (concerns) how fresh the salads are that the machine is creating. We're there twice a day refilling ingredients and guaranteeing the products are fresh.
The salads are not mixed until someone places their order and all ingredients — which are in their own individual canister at that point — come out separately to ensure the freshest experience possible.
Q: So then I ask both of you for some delineation on how you look at these two restaurant models — kiosk and fixed-location store — from both a customer and business perspective for Salad Station?
Heroman: (As it relates to customer experience) the biggest difference is the amount of options that our customers have at our (brick-and-mortar) locations. We have over 100 toppings — triple the amount of toppings offered by other BYO salad companies and salad bars — as well as soups, a hot bar and numerous dressing options. We also offer premium toppings like marinated artichokes, roasted garlic and avocado, among others at our brick-and-mortar stores.
Henderson: We view our salad robots as an opportunity for our brick-and-mortar locations to expand their footprint to non-traditional locations in their local community, and to increase their revenues without increasing labor or product line.
In metropolitan areas where demand for the salad robot surpasses our ability for brick-and-mortar locations to service, a commissary kitchen model will be available. ... We do see the robots as a brand-building opportunity, but not necessarily as a test for a market for potential brick-and-mortar.
Although the quality and freshness of the product is similar, the (robot) experience is very different from a Salad Station experience. The Salad Station offers over 150 different BYO toppings with a clean, modern, farm atmosphere for dining. Sally offers 20 ingredients in a very entertaining, user friendly, fresh, on the go, experience.
Q: Have you had any negative feedback concerning the robot, particularly around those much-voiced concerns many have about such concepts putting people out of work?
Henderson: We view (the salad-making robot) as a unique opportunity to occupy and create revenue in a previously unusable space. We are not using (it) as a tool to replace employment. We hope to expand our employment to support (robot-related) operations and technology.
I think the restaurant industry will continue to have tools developed to make operations more efficient. The Salad Station hopes to take advantage of these tools so our team can focus on aggressive and thoughtful customer service.