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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.
ChipMonk Bakery has seen a growth in their healthy cookie business since the beginning of the pandemic. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk Baking

A Houston bakery is helping Houstonians satisfy their sweet tooth and while also counting their calories. ChipMonk Baking, a local, mail-order bakery, has seen significant growth since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as people look for healthier snacks than what they might find in a typical grocery store.

Founded by David Downing and Jose Hernandez, ChipMonk makes cookies, brownie bites, and other snacks using monk fruit and allulose, a low-calorie (0.4 calories per gram) rare sugar that's found naturally in foods such as raisins, dried figs, and kiwi. Hernandez began developing ChipMonk's recipes to satisfy his taste for cookies after being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes.

"We've refined these recipes and now offer numerous different cookies, dry mixes, and brownie bites which all taste delicious and won't spike your blood sugar," Hernandez says in a statement. "While they're great for people with diabetes, Celiac disease, or those who follow a keto diet, anyone who tries them will enjoy the taste and texture."

Jose Hernandez and David Downing founded ChipMonk Bakery. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk Baking

ChipMonk offers all the usual flavors — white chocolate-macadamia, chocolate chip, lemon, snickerdoodle, etc. — as well as dry mixes for those who want to bake at home. Recently, the company introduced red velvet brownie bites that use gluten-free sunflower seed flower. All of these products, as well as sample boxes, are available via ChipMonk's website; the company does not have a brick-and-mortar storefront.

Based on samples sent to CultureMap, the cookies have a chewy, slightly under-baked texture and a mild sweetness that's similar in flavor and appearance to cookies without their low-carb credentials.

Business has grown steadily over the its first year, according to the company, which has it looking to move from a shared commercial kitchen into its own space. Slated to open this summer, the dedicated bakery would allow Downing and Hernandez to expand both their offerings and the number of people they employ.

"We've received extremely positive feedback from our customers who appreciate having delicious, low-carb treats to enjoy while at home during this difficult time," Downing says. "We're seeing more and more people order for themselves as well as sending our products to friends, relatives, and co-workers."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.