Saving the Nation’s Salad Bars

Order-taking by humans and food-prep by robots may help.

July 09, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Hungry consumers have long been attracted to grocery store salad bars, but grocers and diners alike worry that those bars may become a relic of pre-pandemic shopping. To ease consumers’ worries and boost sales, grocers are taking steps to keep salad lovers coming back, reports Bloomberg.

Some chains are tossing prepackaged salads into the bar’s empty bins. It’s an easy step to take, but it eliminates the customization that shoppers crave. At Publix Super Markets, an employee has been placed next to the bar to take orders during busy time periods, but that slows things down and adds labor. Other retailers are renting out salad bar space to foodservice chains, which eats into profit and cedes control.

“It’s a huge question, and no one really knows,” says Gabrielle Rosi, a store design expert formerly with Whole Foods. “You have these massive metal pieces just sitting there. It’s a big challenge.”

Salad bars drive store visits, and more than 90% of supermarkets have them. Their profit margins can be attractive because they don’t require much labor and shoppers pay by the pound. While they remain lucrative, sales by volume have been declining for several years, according to data-tracker IRI, as salad-centric restaurant chains like Sweetgreen, Chopt and Saladworks expand and take some of those shoppers with them.

COVID-19 is dealing a blow to salad bars. According to a survey from Datassential, more than 80% of consumers say grocery-store salad bars are too risky to visit. In response, both Kroger and Albertsons stores are experimenting with various options, such as prepackaged salads and grab-and-go foods.

As reported last month in NAC Daily, robots have found a place in some restaurant kitchens. Robots now are working the salad bar, too, according to Rick Wilmer, CEO of Chowbotics, a California technology company that has developed a salad-making robot. Named Sally, the robot helps eliminate the health and sanitation concerns associated with salad bars to give consumers fresh, made-to-order meals.

As reported at Cheddar.com, Sally is a $35,000 robot inside of what looks like a vending machine that can hold 22 separate ingredients, including dressings. Shoppers build their own personal salads using a touchscreen—or a mobile ordering app if they prefer not to touch anything. The company reports that more than 200 Sally robots are now making meals in the U.S. and Europe. The first one in the U.S. was installed at a Heinen’s grocery in Ohio, where it offers up a selection of five standard salads for $6.99 each. Customers may choose from options like Cobb or Chicken Caesar or customize their meals.

“Sally is a robotic platform that automates the construction of a customized meal,” said Wilmer. “When you approach the robot, you’re provided with a number of chef-inspired pre-curated bowls you can make for yourself. And if you like one particular bowl, but you don’t want a specific ingredient, you can delete the ingredient from that chef-inspired item. Or like the old salad bar experience, you can peruse all the ingredients in the robot and build the meal you like based on the ingredients in the robot at that time.”

Wilmer sees potential for Sally to whip up breakfast entrees and desserts, as well. “It’s a very versatile machine,” he said.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.

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