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Salad robots, smoothie robots and vertical farms:

California: Bay Area food automation goes from niche to necessity during pandemic

Before the pandemic, Chowbotic’s salad-making robot named Sally was mostly seen in the food world as a quirky, non-essential gadget capable of stealing headlines for any business using one. But in a new dining landscape shaped by social distancing and increased sanitation practices, Sally is a necessity.

The same can be said for a Bay Area robot called Chef B, which makes more than three dozen 12-ounce smoothies in an hour without human assistance. Similarly, a state-of-the-art indoor farming start-up is gaining traction in San Jose, and a San Francisco burger restaurant is making waves for serving takeout orders through a pressurized transfer chamber, which incorporates a miniature conveyor belt. It’s the first of its kind in the city.

As Bay Area residents focus more on cleanliness during the pandemic, food automation, which removes a significant amount of human contact with food in the preparation process, has jumped from a niche commodity to a pillar of the region’s dining culture. And much of the innovation can be traced to the Bay Area.

Sally from Chowbotics in Hayward is an autonomous kiosk capable of mixing dozens of salad combinations with little human interaction. And considering buffet-style meals are, for now, a thing of the past, the future of salad bars exists within Sally, according to Rick Wilmer, the Chowbotics chief executive officer.

“We were selling into higher education spaces, hospitals, and then grocery stores were the new market for us before the pandemic,” Wilmer said. “The pandemic forced universities to shut down but the hospital market has accelerated. We were one of those lucky companies that had the solution ideally suited for the circumstances that changed the way people function as result of COVID-19.”

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