Can a Robot Save the Salad Bar? Coborn’s Aims to Find Out

Expands automated, contactless foodservice offerings
Photograph courtesy of Chowbotics

Delis across the country, including those in Coborn’s stores, have been challenged since the start of the pandemic to provide the same variety and bounty of fresh food offerings, particularly when it comes to customized salads. As salad bars were one of the first in-store casualties of the pandemic, some retailers have turned to contactless automation, like that found in Chowbotics’ Sally the Robot, to offer shoppers fresh options.

Sally the Robot is a compact salad-making machine. About the size of a vending machine, Sally dispenses a full menu of salads, along with customizable options. Spurred by a need for safer self-serve experiences in vertical markets like grocery, Hayward, Calif.-based Chowbotics has developed a mobile app for fast, contactless ordering through Sally. The company has also expanded the robot’s menu capabilities and introduced a large-format video interface designed to create an engaging customer experience, even when socially distanced.

Coborn’s of St. Cloud, Minn., introduced its first Sally in early November in its newest store in Otsego, Minn. Shortly after, it added another unit to its recently remodeled location in Princeton, Minn. The grocer now has a total of three Sally the Robots in two stores.  

“The implementation was driven by the need to innovate during COVID to provide our guests with the staples they had come to expect from us, in a safer format,” Josh Croson, director of deli at Coborn’s told WGB. “In addition, the added food safety and reporting options, along with the cutting-edge technology, are an added bonus as we move forward past the pandemic.”

Customers are embracing the new technology, added Croson, but education is critical to success. “There is a lot of interest in the new technology and how it is providing a safer and fresher option for our guests than a standard salad bar,” he said. “Educating our guests on the new technology has been the key factor in helping gain adoption with Sally. Sales numbers have varied based on the day of the week and going into the holidays, but we are seeing strong sales comparable to our salad bars.”

In the age of personalization and automation, Coborn’s is exploring other ways to meet the consumer where and how they shop during a pandemic and beyond.

“With the introduction of Sally, we have been looking at ways to leverage technology to help provide our guests a more convenient shopping experience, through our expansion of online ordering and e-commerce to additional ways to offer grab-and-go items that have traditionally been offered through our service cases,” Croson said.

In both Coborn’s locations featuring Sally the Robot, the automated salad maker is located front and center in the deli department. In the Otsego store, it’s the first thing shoppers see as they enter the deli from the produce department.

“As we move into 2021, we’ll continue tackling opportunities to bring back a sense of normalcy to the department hit hardest by COVID,” Croson said. “Options like Sally allow us to offer those pillars that delis have become known for in a safer environment.”


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