Local inventor's robotic kiosk hot new idea in frozen yogurt
Allan Jones believes his robotic kiosk could be a disrupter.
At a glance
Address: 2300 Clements Ferry Road, No. 204, Charleston
Product: Robotic yogurt and ice-cream kiosks
CEO: Allan Jones; co-founder James Wolf of Ohio
Residence: Daniel Island
Education: Bachelor's degree in chemistry from Phillips University in Oklahoma; doctorate in polymer science from the University of Akron, Ohio.
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.
"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.
The company builds three different kiosks. Two of them offer two flavors that can be bought separately or swirled together with a choice of six toppings. The difference between the two is one of them offers a video screen showing moving images of one of four touch-screen selected robots while the robotic dispenser prepares the yogurt.
The other kiosk offers four flavors with 10 toppings. Depending on the machine, yogurt is served in one of the two cup sizes with calories ranging from 120 to 190 with topping choices.
Jones said the machine, made from hundreds of parts built across the U.S. and South Carolina, uses a tenth of the energy of entire frozen yogurt stores. The robot handles cups inside the machine, and spoons come from a covered dispenser on the outside.
"Nobody touches anything," he said.
When the machine's yogurt or cup supply falls below a certain level, a sign on top of the robotic device blinks to signal it needs resupplying.
The machines are serviced once a day.
Robofusion earns revenue not only from the sale of the machines and contracts with places such as Bishop England that carry company-owned yogurt dispensers, but also internationally from a percentage of sales each month for support and software licensing. And licensees in the U.S. that own kiosks pay a percentage of sales each month to use the brand and software.
The kiosk-maker contracts with other companies to supply the machines with yogurt, ice-cream mixes and toppings. It trains its exclusive licensees to fix small things and contracts with service providers as well overseas.
Jones wound up in Charleston because he and wife Kathleen vacationed in the Lowcountry 20 years ago.
"This has been a dream place to live her whole life," he said of his spouse, who also helps in the business.
The first machine was developed in Washington state and put through a trial test at a Boys and Girls Club.
"I left my job real quickly afterward," Jones said of the initial success. He was global director of innovation in Massachusetts for W.R. Grace, a specialty chemicals company, when he decided to quit and concentrate entirely on the robotic venture.
Jones worked with business partner James Wolf of Ohio to co-found Robofusion. They conceived the idea because they saw a trend toward automation and miniaturization (think Redbox) and thought it might work in the frozen yogurt industry.
"We looked at the inefficiencies and overhead in the frozen yogurt world," Jones said. "This looked like a better way to deliver frozen yogurt and ice cream."
The two spent a lot of time flying out to the Pacific Northwest to check on the machine's progress and tweak it in the year it took to build the first kiosk.
"It looks one way on paper," Jones said. "It looks another way in operation."
As the long recession took hold six years ago, they took a couple of years off to concentrate on globalizing Wolf's longtime family business of precision engineering and machining.
"It allowed us to develop the branding and fine tune (Robofusion)," Jones said. "There was no thought of quitting or failure."
In 2011, they developed a third-generation machine, debuting it at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Orlando.
"It was just a smash hit," Jones said. "No one had ever seen anything like this."
But they still needed to tweak it further. It was too expensive, too heavy and too bulky.
"The next generation had to be cheaper and easier to install and clean," he said.
Most kiosks in use now are the fourth concept.
The company, with its 10 employees, produces two to three machines a month. Even at that rate, Jones said, "It's a profitable venture."
He expects the business to continue growing as it hopes to test markets in schools, colleges, corporate offices and convenience stores. One day, it will expand beyond its small Charleston-based operation, where the machines are totally assembled, tested and shipped out, but it will remain headquartered in the Lowcountry.
"It's very unique," Jones said. "It has global potential."
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.