A new chef is in town at IU Health Bloomington Hospital. She works 24 hours a day and can make variations of one dish: salad.
Sally the salad robot dispenses lettuce and other fresh ingredients to make personalized salads for staff members, patients and visitors. There are about 50 salad robots worldwide — mostly at college campuses, surgery centers and offices in the U.S. and Europe — but this is the first one installed in a hospital, according to a press release about the machine.
“People are always huddled around it trying to see what’s going on,” said Jonie Gates, manager of marketing and public relations at the hospital.
The machine is manufactured by Chowbotics, a California-based company that creates food service robots.
Although Sally may not have many human qualities, the company wanted to give the machine a name with a human feel to it, said Hasti Afsarifard, Chowbotics customer success manager.
“There’s a lot of fear out there about robots taking over,” she said. “This makes it so staff members can feel like Sally is a part of their team, not something there to steal their jobs.”
Sally’s first day of work at the hospital was Jan. 23. Since then, the machine has made about 20 to 25 salads a day, said Becky Amt, director of food and nutrition services at the hospital.
The toppings range from shredded carrots to bacon bits, and a variety of dressings sit at a nearby table. Customers can choose premade salads or design their own with up to six toppings, but the salads are always $6.99 each.
Because the ingredients sit in separate, airtight tubes at 38 degrees Fahrenheit, Amt said they stay fresh longer. And if the ingredients go bad, the machine automatically stops dispensing them.
Amt said Sally is a healthy alternative to vending machines, which are typically the only food options available after 7 p.m. at the hospital.
“In a vending machine, you never know how long that sandwich or whatever has been sitting there,” she said.
The machine is located in the middle of the hospital lobby, nestled between the outpatient surgery center and the emergency department. It is more accessible for visitors than the vending machines spread throughout the hospital, Amt said.
“People don’t want to be too far away from their loved ones having a surgery,” she said.
Additionally, the machine allows less risk for cross-contamination of foods than if a person were to make it, Afsarifard said. This is important for people with food allergies, she said.
“People with allergies might be familiar with coming to the hospital because of allergic reactions, so we like to think we’re decreasing that risk,” she said. “I think a lot of people are reluctant to eat from a salad bar at a hospital otherwise.”
Founder and CEO Deepak Sekar imagined the idea of Sally after making food in his kitchen and realizing he did not want to spend time on repetitive tasks like stirring and chopping ingredients, according to a Chowbotics press release.
Now, Chowbotics is planning on installing machines at other hospitals across the nation, Afsarifard said.
Amt said the company is considering installing machines in Bedford and Paoli, Indiana, where health facilities are smaller than in Bloomington and have fewer food staff members.
Afsarifard said the company also has machines that supply other food like grain bowls and Indian cuisine. Additional food options will likely crop up in the future, she said, but for now the company is focusing on installing more salad robots.
“We’re hoping to scale up pretty quick,” she said. “We’ve been seeing really great traction.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Chowbotics. The machine is manufactured by Chowbotics. The IDS regrets this error.