Robot in Residence

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The new robotic smoothie maker, located near the sandwich station in the caf, is dubbed “Chef B” by the company’s CEO. WILLIAM WIN/FOGHORN

“Chef B” is a robot. And it makes smoothies.

The machine made its debut on March 25 as the newest addition to the Market Café, more commonly referred to as the caf. The robot is from Blendid, a company founded in 2015. It uses a robotic arm to create “Blends,” omitting ice by using flash-frozen fruit.

Chef B is part of a trial partnership between Blendid and Bon Appétit for this semester, and may continue depending on its success, according to Garrett O’Doherty, the top administrator in charge of the cafeteria.

“The idea of an automated smoothie machine looked interesting, fun, and fit a niche not currently being offered at USF,” O’Doherty said in an email interview.

Blends are 12 ounces and cost $6. Currently, students cannot use Flexi to pay for the smoothies, although Blendid founder and CEO Vipin Jain said in an interview that he hopes to change this by next week. Jain also coined the name “Chef B.”

Students can get their first smoothie for free. All of the flavors are gluten-free and those without kefir, a probiotic yogurt, are vegan. The USF-exclusive flavor, the “Foggy Don,” uses kale, apple juice, bananas, chia, kefir and blueberries.

Chef B can create up to nine Blends at once, according to Jain, using a robotic arm dexterous enough to lift, grab and turn omnidirectionally to access kiosk-mounted food dispensers and blenders. The robotic arm then cleans the blenders around it after each order with a hot-water rinse.

The machine also has an app, which allows you to customize your smoothie and order in advance.

Why a robot? According to Jain, the automated system provides economic and logistical advantages and is both cheaper and more convenient than hiring human workers.  

“One of the problems foodservice operators have is that we cannot hire enough staff,” Jain said. “So, what we need to do as an economy is to automate the mundane, repetitive tasks because people don’t want to do the jobs,” Jain said, referring to a 2017 National Restaurant Association report which stated that 37 percent of its members said that labor recruitment was their top challenge.

Instead, Jain said Blendid wants to create “higher-paying jobs,” so they hire Brand Ambassadors, who earn between $15-20 an hour, based on experience. San Francisco’s minimum wage is $15 per hour. Brand Ambassadors fill up food dispensers and clean the kiosk, interact with customers and market Blendid products.

Students had mixed reactions to the caf’s new resident robot.  

“It’s [an] interesting technology, but a student could work there,” Phemie Lowe, a freshman kinesiology major, said of Chef B.

Ryan Gonzaga, a freshman computer science major, praised Blendid’s embrace of robotics. “It has a more modern feel, I’m glad we’re being more innovative,” Gonzaga said. But when he took a sip of a “Foggy Don” smoothie, he was disappointed. “It was watered down,” Gonzaga said.

Khalil Jarane, a junior psychology major, works for Blendid as a team lead for brand ambassadors. He said he was drawn to Blendid by the intersection of cutting-edge technology and food. “I’m really interested in artificial intelligence in general, and I’ve been in the food industry ever since I can remember. So this [job] is where I feel comfortable,” Jarane said.

He isn’t worried about the machine replacing jobs and sees its success only being a positive thing for a long time.

But Blendid is moving quickly. Jain said the company is trying to set up kiosks at corporate campuses in the future, including one new location next month, although Jain would not say where.

The company is the second third-party vendor to be added to the caf this semester, after Organic Coup, which serves organic chicken sandwiches and wraps. O’Doherty could not confirm if more third-party vendors are coming. “We’re not looking for more concepts currently,” O’Doherty said. “But if something complements our existing operation, we would consider future test runs,” O’Doherty said.

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