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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.
Florida startup Fit:Match chose Houston for its first location of its AI-enabled retail store. Photo via shopfitmatch.com

In November, on the first floor of Friendswood's Baybrook Mall, wedged between the Abercrombie & Fitch and the Apple Store, a small studio popped up. At the window, a bubblegum assortment of balloons replaced the usual spruced-up manakin, and the shop is sparse for racks of clothing.

That's because the Fit:Match studio isn't really trying to sell clothes — it's trying to help you buy them online. By fusing artificial intelligence with retail shopping, Fit:Match makes ordering clothes online more trustworthy. The writing on the walls promised to revolutionize the way that people could: "Shop what fits. Not what doesn't," reads a neon sign. The tech might not only reduce long waits for the dressing room — it could abolish it altogether.

"You never have to try on clothes again," says Haniff Brown, founder of the Florida-native startup.

The store does have a fitting room, but Brown says it's not really for trying on clothes — it's for preparing to "get fitched," the process through which the imaging tech measures a customer's body.

It's fitting that the pop-up sits next to the iPhone giant. Fit:Match uses the same 3D imaging tech as Apple's FaceID, Brown says, which blasts infrared light at thousands of dots at a user's face. Where the light bounces off, the AI technology images the person's face. The sensors at the Fit:Match studio in Baybrook Mall expand this to the rest of the body. In 10 seconds, the AI sensor lets people sketches a customer's shape through 150 measurements.

Those measurements become indicators of how well a piece of clothing will fit the wearer. In the initial phase of the project, Brown's team fitched thousands of women — wanting to keep things neat, the company hasn't ventured into men's fashion yet — and compared the scores of the AI's algorithm with how the women scored their own clothes.

Now, once a customer has been fitched at the Baybrook studio, she can log online through an app or the company site and sift through thousands of clothes that will likely fit her. Each clothing item — mostly smaller brands that range from eclectic pieces and dresses to athleisure right now, Brown says, although he's already working to partner with better-known labels — is rated with a percentage of how well it's likely to fit the individual customer, based on her measurements and on how snug or loose she likes her wear. From the array of brands, she'll get specific matches — clothes that have a 90 percent chance or higher of fitting — that might look completely different from a friend's. Over time, the app will also update her on the latest matches.

"You're going to have this personalized wallet," Brown says, adding that this will also decrease a store's rate of return. "You will see a completely truncated assortment of clothes that are meant to fit you."

The Baybrook Mall hosts Fit:Match's first location. Brown says he chose the Houston area for its size and demographics, calling it a "hotbed to test new ideas, to get traction, to get customer feedback," and is even considering expanding to the Woodlands Mall and other places around Texas, too. It's also not far from the Austin-based Capital Factory, which brought Fit:Match under its wing late last year to help the startup raise $5 million.

In the meantime, the five-member management team at Fit:Match is focused on getting more Houstonians fitched. In the first month of operations, the studio measured more than 1,200 mallgoers, and Brown says the company could fitch a quarter million in the next two or three years.

"We think that the opportunity here is immense," Brown says.