Robotic smoothie maker debuts at Sonoma State University
The newest attraction at Charlie Brown's Cafe at Sonoma State University is making drinks and drawing a crowd.
It's a smoothie-making robot.
“It creates something students might want to come to campus for. It's definitely eye-appealing. Not every place on campus has robots,” said Cheri-Ann Inouye, a sophomore in business administration.
“I like it because it's easy to get to. You can order ahead of time on the app, pick up your smoothie, and get right to class,” said Melissa Aragon, a freshman in political science.
The robot, which is self-contained in an 8 foot by 8 foot clear kiosk, was created by Blendid, a Sunnyvale-based startup.
“A college is a great place for this technology because it is home to digital natives, generations that are used to interacting with artificial intelligence and smartphone-based apps,” said Blendid CEO and co-founder Vipin Jain. “In addition, almost all of the recipes for SSU are vegan. That fits in with the campus's view of encouraging healthy lifestyles.”
As for the robot, he said combining a robot and AI, “allows Blendid to be precise and consistent.”
He added that the company, founded in 2015, is focused now on smoothies, but more is planned.
“We intend to bring more formats and cuisines to market over time," Jain said. “We currently have two kiosks in operation and selling Blends at the University of San Francisco and Sonoma State University, with plans to open more locations throughout 2020 and beyond.”
Some robotics in the food service industry have not caught on - like a pizza-making robot in San Francisco - but Jain is hopeful about the direction of the technology.
“We believe in this industry and using robotics as a sustainable long-term solution to the underlying problem of giving consumers what they want while allowing operators to serve these demanding consumers well,” Jain said.
From chia seeds to PB Chocolicious
The Blendid robot creates eight different drinks, including Green Warrior, which contains kale, banana, kefir, apple juice and chia seeds, and the caffeinated Banana Jolt, composed of banana, coconut water, oats and coffee.
The most popular flavor is The Classic, which contains strawberry and banana. The richest is PB Chocolicious, which contains peanut butter and cacao powder.
“When we did surveys at our soft launch at SSU in late November, we found some consumers were looking for a much sweeter, dessert-like blend. This helped us come up with PB Chocolicious, an agave-sweetened smoothie that is only offered at SSU,” said Covahne Michaels, vice president of marketing for Blendid.
Michaels said each of Blendid's drinks is 12 ounces, costs $6 and takes several minutes to make. A customer can control how much they want of certain ingredients, like strawberries or mangoes.
“There is a slide bar for certain ingredients that lets you add more or less depending on your taste and dietary preferences. The changes impact nutritional levels, including protein, fiber, and calories. A consumer can make any order gluten-free or sugar-free. A consumer can see all the changes with real-time updates on the Blendid app,” Michaels said.
The robot, which costs under $100,000 to build, gets the ingredients from automatic dispensers. The dispensers contain precut frozen fruit and vegetables that are measured out precisely according to the recipe formulation and customization. The robot then uses blenders to make the smoothies. After pouring out the drinks into compostable cups on a counter, the robot cleans the blenders.
Outside the wall of the kiosk, customers can pick up biodegradable lids, straws and napkins.
Michaels said the machine is currently open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the same hours as Charlie Brown's Cafe. Blendid is exploring the idea of having the kiosk open 24 hours a day. The robot should be able to handle the workload. Jain said the robot is designed to make 45 orders an hour and up to nine orders simultaneously.
The South Bay to North Bay connection
Blendid's robot came to SSU by way of a personal connection between Don Cortes, the university's executive chef, and Shawn LaPean, Blendid's vice president of business development.
SSU's culinary services leadership team visited the robot's first kiosk, which opened at the University of San Francisco's Market Café in March 2019. The team then became interested in bringing the concept to SSU.
Casey Kelly, marketing manager for Sonoma State University, said the culinary services team and Blendid's team worked together to ensure the blends offered to SSU remained affordable and nutritional.
The local team also provided information to Blendid about the price of smoothies that Charlie Brown's Cafe used to offer.
One of the reasons the joint effort has succeeded so was because Kristen Rasmussen, Blendid's executive chef and nutritionist, was familiar with North Bay tastes.
Rasmussen, who formerly taught culinary science at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone's campus in St. Helena, now works for Blendid and as adjunct faculty for the University of California, Berkeley.
“We are currently working with a set number of ingredients. I helped determine what combination of ingredients would give us the best range of blend options. I wanted to create blends that were delicious and craveable, but still good for you,” Rasmussen said.
Blendid set up the company's financial path to success by establishing a revenue-sharing agreement with SSU. The deal included a stipulation that Charlie Brown's Cafe would no longer offer smoothies on its menu. For the initial opening, SSU hired multiple SSU students as brand ambassadors to stand next to the kiosk. The employees introduced customers to the kiosk and facilitated ordering and pick-up. In the first few months, there will be one to two ambassadors at the kiosk while the cafe is open. Blendid indicated at a later point, the kiosk will be unmanned.
Faith Long, a senior in biology, said she came to see the machine to get a free drink. She also wanted to learn how technology might affect her job as a smoothie maker back home in Humboldt County.
“I don't think they're going to replace me just yet. Maybe in 30 years,” Long said. “But there are already two pros for the machine that I see: One is that the machine measures ingredients exactly. It's more efficient. The other is that it spills a lot less than I do. That's less to clean up.”