Salad-making robot gets a dressing down

A robot created by Silicon Valley veterans to craft the perfect salad has attracted millions of dollars in funding and raised fears for employment. But tomato-choppers needn’t worry yet.

Chowbotics was founded three years ago in San Jose by Deepak Sekar — holder of more than 100 patents — with the mission “to make food preparation fun by automating tedious, repetitive tasks with robotics”.

Its leading robot is Sally, a machine about the size of a small fridge that houses 21 ingredients, including kale, parmesan, seared chicken breast, tomatoes, olives and dressings. Customers use a touchscreen to choose a salad from more than 1,000 combinations, which is “created” within 60 seconds.

There is a catch, however. The $30,000 robot cannot actually perform the most “tedious, repetitive tasks” involved in salad-making. Mr Sekar has said that chopping and other preparation inside the machine remains too tricky, although it is something he promises for the future. Any buyers still need staff to methodically prepare the ingredients for its canisters.

Moreover, Sally simply plonks one ingredient after another into the bowl, so the salads as dispensed look quite different to the lovingly assembled dishes on the display. What has bothered California’s tech pundits most, however, is Sally’s inability to handle avocados, a signature ingredient in Silicon Valley, because of their texture.

The company has denied that Sally is simply a vending machine, stressing that it uses sensors to weigh portions and notify owners when an ingredient is running low.

It also points to the 25st gadget’s ability to tot up the salad’s calories while you’re choosing ingredients. And it says it is significantly more hygienic than an open salad bar, where customers’ hands may contaminate the food.

The robot is intended for use in settings including restaurants, offices and airports and will be serving customers in the US this month. Chowbotics has raised funding of more than $6 million. Its team includes Rich Page, who worked alongside Steve Jobs at Apple, and Charlie Ayers, Google’s first chef.

Mr Ayers has taken a bullish line on the device’s capacity to replace human workers, telling Bloomberg: “I don’t feel like I’m betraying my brothers and sisters by replacing them. It’s happening in every industry now. You can fight it or be on the team that makes it happen.”

Sally will be launched next week, with initial trials at an Italian restaurant in Santa Clara, an office in San Francisco and a grocery company’s headquarters in Texas.

Chowbotics intends to follow up with robots that put together Mexican and Indian dishes and later to create small-scale food robots for homes.