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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

 
 

Plug and Play, an international accelerator and investment group with a presence in Houston, joined a panel to discuss startup investment, networking, and more during the pandemic. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

It's no secret that the spread of COVID-19 has greatly affected startup ecosystems by shutting down coworking and accelerator spaces and providing economic uncertainty in the venture capital world. However, organizations focused on investment and acceleration are still working to virtually guide startups virtually.

Plug and Play Tech Center, an accelerator and investment group based in Silicon Valley that recently launched its Houston presence, is still offering support and even investments to startups as the pandemic continues on. One way they've recently done so is through Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to answer questions from Houston entrepreneurs.

On the panel, Neda Amidi, partner and global head of health at Plug and Play Tech Center, Milad Malek, associate at Plug and Play Ventures, and Payal Patel, director at Plug and Play Houston, discussed concerns and questions about the organization's dedication to Houston, advice amid the pandemic, and more. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Timing and opportunity set up the Plug and Play Houston office. The mayor and other business leaders in Houston had seen what happens in our Silicon Valley office and with all the things that are going on in the burgeoning startup community in Houston, we saw the opportunity.”

— Patel says on how Houston snagged its very own Plug and Play location. "Given the high concentration of large companies here — as well as the growing number of investment opportunities — we moved quite quickly to open the office here," she adds.

“There’s a number of great entrepreneurs here in this city. I think a missing ingredient has been the number of early stage investments — especially in that Seed or series A stage. So, we hope to make an impact in that. Our CEO has publicly stated that he’d like to make five investments in Houston a year.”

— Patel shares about Plug and Play's investment strategy in Houston. She adds that five investments in Houston a year is the bare minimum, and they actually are striving for more.

“[Investing virtually is] kind of the same process, but we definitely try to make sure we have cameras on and distractions are away, really giving that entrepreneur that same experience as we can in a face-to-face meeting."

— Amidi says on how Plug and Play's investment team approaches investment meetings and pitches during this time. She explains that during the beginning of the pandemic, most of their investments were with companies that had existing relationships with or follow on deals. Now they have made investments in companies they've never met in person. She says Plug and Play has relied on its network to give feedback on these potential deals.

“During COVID, we’ve recommended to a lot of our portfolio companies to raise more than what they needed at the time to be able to power through what’s happening now and what will happen on the economy side as well."

— Amidi says about investment advice they've given to Plug and Play startups.

“A lot of hardware companies get too intense in terms of thinking about one avenue of fundraising. Spend a lot more time thinking about fundraising strategy.”

Malek says on fundraising for hardware startups specifically. He adds that there are other options for generating cash flow, like grants. "Don't forget the business side of things" he adds. "I know early on, a lot of founders are focused on the technology and prototyping, but it's important as well to think about a compelling narrative for potential investors — even if you're pre-revenue."

"For SaaS, it’s important to have a unique differentiation. There are a lot of copy cats in this realm. It’s ok to be doing something that has competitors — every startup has competitors."

— Malek says about software-as-a-service startups pitching to investors. "It's a red flag when we're talking to a startup — especially one with a SaaS product — that says we don't have competitors," he adds, saying it's usually not true.

“A lot of investors out there prefer teams with multiple founders and not just one founder. It never hurts, at least in an investor’s eyes, to have two or three founders.”

— Malek explains, responding to a question about how to begin the process of bringing another co-founder on board. Investors, he says, value a team with diverse backgrounds and expertise.

“Take your time — it’s kind of like picking a spouse or partner. You want to make sure you’re compatible.”

Amidi adds, saying it's an exceptionally difficult process nowadays. She recommends reaching out to your network for leads on a potential co-founder or even looking into sites like AngelList or LinkedIn.

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