A tea blending robot launched by three University of Toronto students called teaBot has been selected by Whole Foods to participate in the opening of its 365 by Whole Foods Market store in the Silver Lake neighbourhood in Los Angeles on May 25.
teaBot will host a kiosk in the retail store, alongside other brands such as Allegro Coffee Company, offering the kind of streamlined, quality-meets-service proposition that Whole Foods hopes will connect with a new generation of shoppers in one of the most rapidly gentrifying and hip neighbourhoods in the United States.
The 365 by Whole Foods Market initiative is seen as a possible make-or-break for the grocery chain as it struggles to reconcile its reputation for high-end quality without alienating customers who regard its offerings as a bit out of reach, or who regard the arrival of Whole Foods in a neighbourhood as a symbol of gentrification akin to Vice Media and Starbucks.
Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM) has seen its share price plunge about 40% lower than where it was a year ago, closing at $30.60 U.S. today, so pressure is high for the 365 experiment to pay off.
“With each store, we’re looking to curate a unique experience. Allegro’s craft brew bar will provide a casual place for Silver Lake residents to relax before or after they shop, while teaBOT’s unique service will offer a quick, yet deeply personalized tea-making experience,” said Jeff Turnas, president of 365 by Whole Foods Market. “We’ve really dedicated ourselves to partnering with like-minded companies that are doing new and interesting things in their respective field to bring a truly unique shopping experience that complements our thoughtfully curated selection of foods.”
Silver Lake is a testing ground for indie rock groups, food trucks, art galleries, craft cheeses, organic wine and beer, farmer markets, beards, and the type of trends that typify a very particular kind of lifestyle-as-a-service that has seen explosive growth from its original hotbeds like Austin, Texas, Wicker Park in Chicago, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
Launched in 2013 by U of T aerospace and robotics PhD candidate Rehman Merali, engineering student Brian Lee, and Masters of Management of Innovation student Safina Allidina, teaBot eliminates long lines in coffee shops for tea drinkers by allowing them to select a finely tuned cup of tea from thousands of possible flavour combinations using either a teaBot tablet located at the kiosk or using your own teaBot smartphone app.
teaBot participated in the Rotman School of Business Creative Destruction Lab before moving on to the JOLT business incubator at the MaRS Discovery District.
In the summer of 2015, the teaBot team found itself enrolled in Y-Combinator in California.
Whole Foods intends to open two more 365 by Whole Foods Market locations in 2016 – in Bellevue, Washington, and Portland, Oregon – with up to 10 more slated to open in 2017.
teaBot recently took the $12,000 first prize at the 2016 Customer Experience Innovation Retail Competition, which saw start-ups pitching retail concepts to Mercedes-Benz Canada and Compass Group Canada executives.