Panaro: Sally the Salad Robot and Campus Dining

Kevin Panaro, Staff Columnist

Food variety has always been a sore spot for students on Case Western Reserve University’s campus; however, a recent article in The Daily shows that CWRU might be finally changing its ways. Sally the Salad Robot has taken up new residence in the Kelvin Smith Library, after transferring from her previous location in the Law School Café. Next to Cramelot Café, she is billed as a 24/7 stop for healthy options during bouts of late-night studying. She offers students two different greens, three proteins and 12 to 15 toppings available.

While this effort from Bon Appétit Management Company is commendable, it is only a small step in the right direction. For students with dietary restrictions, such as being vegetarian or vegan, variety is hard to come by at Leutner and Fribley Commons. A singular salad bar is all that is offered in the way of healthy, non-meat-based alternatives. For on-the-go locations, like Tomlinson Marketplace and Melt University, the situation is even worse.

To some extent, the two on-campus dining halls, the aforementioned Leutner and Fribley, have a difficult task. With limited staff and resources, they must produce food en masse daily, simultaneously cleaning tables, washing dishes and prepping workstations. However, this does not excuse what some consider a total disregard for student choice, especially when factoring in the cost and nature of the meal plan. Notably, all first- and second-year students are required to be on the meal plan. Management cannot even claim ignorance of these issues, as students often vocally express their concerns, in person and online.

Providing a satisfying array of options for students on the meal plan may be challenging, sure, but it is not impossible. In comparison, other schools have done a better job introducing more innovative and healthier eating options. A vegan news site, VegNews, cites the nearby Kent State University as a “destination for exceptional plant-based eats,” with a vegan takeout service, Veggie A-Go-Go, offering everything from Caribbean tofu to black beans. Across the country at the University of California, San Diego, the all-vegan restaurant Roots, has been a student favorite since it opened in 2012.

By moving the salad robot to KSL, in some sense, Bon Appétit is admitting they are aware of the issue, though they refuse to take actual initiative to fix it, like amending or expanding the dining hall and to-go meal services. They send an inanimate, rectangular box to do the work that a salaried employee with benefits could do. Sally’s main draws, conserving space and increasing efficiency, speaks to CWRU’s priorities, where efforts to save the university money and decrease cost are advertised as innovative and creative solutions to real problems. Another example of this cop-out style of innovation is the recent switch to new recycling and garbage bins by the Office of Energy and Sustainability. Some might argue this signifies a commitment to ensuring that our trash ends up in the proper location, citing the long term environmental benefits. In reality, this move is a drop in the bucket, compared to the many instances of energy inefficiency throughout campus, not to mention the massive daily waste from Fribley and Leutner. 

Simultaneously, Sally also represents a shift in how food service is viewed on college campuses and around the world. Designed by a company called Chowbotics, Sally is only the first step in a new direction, according to Chowbotics’ website. They advertise robot-served food as a part of their efforts to “build a new path to fresh food.” 

As technology continues to progress, jobs in the service industry will start to diminish, as most companies prefer automated solutions. In the Sears think[box], the pizza ATM is taking similar steps. First introduced in August 2017, the machine was the second of its kind. Its proprietary technology enables frozen pizza to be cooked and served in under three minutes.

This is not to say that machines like Sally and the pizza ATM will replace services like dining halls on college campuses, but, as CWRU and peer schools look to cut costs, robots are unsalaried, and require no employee benefits or time off. This solution becomes all the more appetizing to universities when you consider the precious space conserved by a giant cube or rectangular prism, as opposed to a café or restaurant.

In conclusion, Bon Appétit has a history of lackluster options for vegan or vegetarian students. Services like salad bars are more of a consolation than a viable option for those with dietary restrictions. Rather than signifying an about face, Sally the Salad Robot is just another example of this lack of commitment.