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New-to-Houston concept tosses salad-making robots into the mix with rapid expansion

The Salad Station and Chowbotics have teamed up to bring a salad-making vending machine to multiple locations across Houston. Courtesy of The Salad Station

A healthy foods concept has selected Houston as its next spot to bring its salad-making robot — aptly named Sally. The Salad Station, a Louisiana-based restaurant group, has partnered with California-based Chowbotics to bring salad-making vending machines to Houstonians.

Chowbotics invented Sally, which serves customizable, made-to-order salads, snacks, breakfast bowls, and grain bowls. Scott Henderson, founder and president of The Salad Station, tells InnovationMap that the discussion with Chowbotics about being the company's operational manager started in 2018.

"In seven states, from Texas to Florida, The Salad Station does operations for Sally the robot," says Henderson. "We both have a passion for bringing fresh products to people as many hours of the day as possible."

Henderson tells InnovationMap that he saw potential for the robot to increase opportunities for the chain's franchisees, increasing the amount of locations one person could own.

"We started looking at locations for Sally the robot and just in the Texas Medical Center alone, we feel like it could be 60 to 80 placements," says Henderson.

Due to the massive potential, The Salad Station entered into a partnership with Houston-based RoboFresh as the group's commissary to bring in more than 100 robots by 2022. Henderson tells InnovationMap that there will be 10 salad-making robots in the Texas Medical Center by 2020.

According to Henderson, the robot holds 22 unique ingredients, including two different lettuces, six topping options, and a dressing. The customer is able to customize their ingredients to create the salad of their choice. Payment is completed by credit card or Apple Pay, with most salads costing $7 to $8.

Henderson tells InnovationMap that the number one question they are asked at salad robot facilities is how the machine's ingredients stay fresh.

"We service the machines, at a minimum, twice a day, everyday," says Henderson. "Every morning and afternoon, we have people that go to the robots to bring fresh ingredients and to sanitize the outside of the machine."

Each ingredient is loaded in an airtight container, Henderson says.

"So, from the prepping in our Salad Station restaurants to delivering and installing it, there is no touch of product," says Henderson.

Henderson tells InnovationMap that each canister has an expiration date. For example, the expiration date on spinach is two days, so if the ingredient is not sold within that time frame, it no longer shows an option for the customer.

"Anytime the robot goes over 41 degrees for more than five minutes it disables itself, so customers cannot use the machine until we come back on site and change out the ingredients," says Henderson, adding that the robot maintains a consistent temperature of 34 degrees, keeping produce fresh and crisp.

The salad vending machines are just the beginning of growth in the Space City. The Salad Station is expanding into the Houston area with their first local brick and mortar location in Webster. In addition to the new opening, the franchise is expected to open additional locations across the greater Houston area in the next few years.

"That's where we're at for Texas, we're searching for local people, mainly in the Houston surrounding areas, that want to own their own business," says Henderson.

He adds that he believes the company's family-friendly values and hours will draw in more individuals to help open franchise locations of the fresh food chain.

The Salad Station was founded by Scott Henderson and his mother and business partner Cindy Henderson in 2012, the first store opening in Hammond, LA. Henderson tells InnovationMap that he started franchising the concept in 2014 and locating partners in nearby states to bring The Salad Station to new markets. The restaurant group currently has locations in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

Johnmike Heroman, the head of franchise development at The Salad Station, tells InnovationMap that the chain is currently looking for potential franchise owners in the Houston area and feedback on placement options for Sally's next location.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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