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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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A Rice University scientist will be working on the team for NASA's latest Mars rover. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Rice University Martian geologist has been chosen by NASA as one of the 13 scientists who will be working on a new Mars rover.

Perseverance, the rover that launched in July and is expected to land on Mars in February. It will be scouting for samples to bring back to study for ancient microbial life, and Kirsten Siebach — an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — will be among the researchers to work on the project. Her proposal was one of 119 submitted to NASA for funding, according to a Rice press release.

"Everybody selected to be on the team is expected to put some time into general operations as well as accomplishing their own research," she says in the release. "My co-investigators here at Rice and I will do research to understand the origin of the rocks Perseverance observes, and I will also participate in operating the rover."

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Perseverance is headed for Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area that once hosted a lake and river delta where, according to scientists, microbial life may have existed over 3 billion years ago. Siebach is particularly excited hopefully find fossils existing in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in water — which usually exists as limestone on Earth.

"There are huge packages of limestone all over Earth, but for some reason it's extremely rare on Mars," she says. "This particular landing site includes one of the few orbital detections of carbonate and it appears to have a couple of different units including carbonates within this lake deposit. The carbonates will be a highlight of we're looking for, but we're interested in basically all types of minerals."

Siebach is familiar with rovers — she was a member of the team for NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. For this new rover, Siebach knows what to expect.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades."

Siebach and her team — which includes Rice data scientist Yueyang Jiang and mineralogist Gelu Costin — are planning to tap into computational and machine-learning methods to map out minerals and discover evidence for former life on Mars. They will also be using a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to analyze the materials.

The return mission isn't expected to return until the early 2030s, so it's a long game for the scientists. However, the samples have the potential to revolutionize what we know about life on Mars with more context than before.

"Occasionally, something hits Mars hard enough to knock a meteorite out, and it lands on Earth," she says in the release. "We have a few of those. But we've never been able to select where a sample came from and to understand its geologic context. So these samples will be revolutionary."

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