Just like Redbox's DVD dispensers replaced the once-ubiquitous brick-and-mortar Blockbuster video stores with lower prices and lower overhead, the Daniel Island inventor believes his Berkeley County company, Robofusion, could do much the same thing to frozen yogurt stores.
Allan Jones with Robofusion explains the workings of a robotic frozen yogurt kiosk the company developed.
Bishop England student Lukas Zalesky places an order as other students wait in line to get frozen yogurt from a robotic kiosk developed by Robofusion near Daniel Island.
"This will replace a lot of them," Jones said. "I think it will affect those stores with low-performing volume."
Robofusion's kiosks, about the size of an industrial, walk-in refrigerator, dis- pense yogurt and ice cream in two sizes, depending on the machine, by using a touch screen for selections. A robotic arm fills the cups, adds toppings and delivers the treats to the customer through a revolving platform. People can pay by cash, credit or debit card. Though the price can vary, it's generally $3 for an 8-ounce serving, or $5-$6 for a 12-ounce souvenir cup.
The patented concept, billed as the "world's only interactive robotic kiosk," is doing so well, Jones said, that one of the top four frozen yogurt companies in the U.S. is trying to acquire it. Only he and his investors aren't ready to sell. "That's the kind of attention we are getting," Jones said.
He is also talking with a convenience store group to make the product as easily accessible across the nation as buying a newspaper or a cup of coffee.
First developed in 2007, with several reworkings of the machine since then, the Clements Ferry Road company has about 37 kiosks in operation around the globe. About half of them are in the U.S. The rest are in the Middle East, Asia, South America and Mexico. They are in some malls, water parks, science centers, an aquarium and a school.
The company currently offers only yogurt machines in the U.S. The ice-cream kiosks are overseas.
Depending on the size of the unit and the number of offerings, the kiosks sell for between $65,000 and $200,000.
The first one to enter a school in the United States is set up in the private Bishop England High School on Daniel Island. It's been there about a month, and students seem to love it.
"The machine is pretty innovative and unique," said senior Lukas Zalesky as he spooned up some cookie dough yogurt with sprinkles. "I think it's really good. It's very creative. A lot of people are fascinated with robotics."
Senior Jessica DeCapua said it offers a healthier option. "It's different and more interesting than regular vending machines," she said.
The school gets a small percentage of all sales, Bishop England business manager Cindy Hart said. Jones asked that the percentage remain confidential since it is different depending on the contract.
"We hope to be in every school," he said. "That's a massive market for us."
Under new federal guidelines, schools must get rid of high-calorie, junk food offerings in vending machines by mid-summer. That means healthier options, such as frozen yogurt, which can have fewer calories than candy bars, honey buns and potato chips, will open the snack food market to new options. Jones wants to be at the forefront of the changeover.
"This is happening at the right time for us," he said.