By Ken Albala, Food Historian
What would you do if a rolling, autonomous cooler with food arrived at your feet? If you’re the students or faculty at The University of the Pacific, you take the food you ordered as the cooler scoots off. Professor Ken Albala, food historian, describes his experiences with hello GoodnessTM, a robotic delivery system.
Last fall, while walking through campus, my path was suddenly crossed by a strange, little, white vehicle with many small, brightly colored wheels, seemingly unmanned. I assumed it was another robotic experiment from the engineering school. It stopped, as if to check me out, and I nearly poked and prodded it before it scurried off. I would never have guessed that by spring, the University of the Pacific, where I teach food history, would be the site of invasion, with a dozen or so, identical snack bots delivering munchies to students, as a trial run for PepsiCo, Inc.’s hello GoodnessTM robotic delivery system. PepsiCo is a multinational food, snack, and beverage corporation headquartered in New York.
I first assumed, wrongly, as it turns out, that these robotic carts would carry candy bars and sugary soda to lazy students who couldn’t manage to walk a few hundred feet or so to the college cafeteria. Moreover, I thought, if I wanted to order something, I would have to go downstairs in my building and cross in front of a row of vending machines before even getting to the door; so receiving a robotic food delivery would actually take more steps. I should point out, I track my steps with a common tracker device, walking several miles to and from campus, about 2 to 3 hours per day. So, the idea that a person couldn’t saunter a few feet in distance to satisfy a craving for junk food truly piqued my ire. I entertained hypothetical thoughts of luring the bot toward a bridge on campus and kicking it into the Calaveras River.
I later learned, PepsiCo offers the hello Goodness line of brand-name products, such as baked chips, low-calorie beverages, and so on, and is explicitly marketed as carrying the products for a “better lifestyle,” offering better choices than standard junk food. That’s impressive. Since they deliver food, why can’t PepsiCo also stock fresh fruit and additional health-promoting food options via their robotic delivery system? PepsiCo is not a grocer; I understand that. But, all the more so, why not pander to serious indulgences? If the bots could deliver some decent cheese, and perhaps a glass of wine, I would be their best customer.
As spring progressed, during my walks, I noticed a large rental van arriving early in the morning, unloading the minions. They were lined up ready for the assault, right next to the cafeteria and within a minute’s walk of a small, campus convenience store. I still could not imagine who would order for food delivery from these robotic carts and had never seen anyone using them. So I asked the students in my food policy seminar, all seniors about to graduate, if they had ever used one. One student in a class of 24 students had already downloaded the app, but had never used it. I would have tried to get a food delivery order myself, but couldn’t figure out how. I asked the student to order some chips, I’d pay her back. We had 20 minutes left for class and we could see the door to the building where the bot should be waiting to drop off my snack. The app told her that the average waiting time would be one hour and 10 minutes for delivery. The whole class is only slightly longer! So clearly, this service is not designed for impatient or hungry students.
Another student posited a plausible scenario for a successful purchase: “Let’s say I’m working and there’s a paper due tomorrow (there is!) and I’m hungry, but I don’t want to stop to go find some food. So, I order a snack from the bot, and whenever it arrives, I can continue writing, turn in my assignment on-time and get a “healthy-ish” snack.” I replied, “On the other hand, wouldn’t stopping for a meal give you a refreshing break, allowing you to clear your head and to write a more focused paper? And honestly, if you’ve left it to the last day, I don’t think 5 minutes is going to make a difference.”
In the end, and this sometimes happens in a food policy seminar, the students said they didn’t really care about healthy-ish snacks, nor did they care about saving a few minutes by having them delivered. It wasn’t a matter of cost, either, as the delivered snacks are the same price as elsewhere. The students could not see any compelling reason to use this convenience. As much as we all thought it was really cool to see the cute little carts zipping around, was this anything more than a gimmick? None of us had ever seen one make the hand off of goods. Would the test work after all? If they delivered 5:00 p.m. cocktails to faculty members, I’d put money on it!
Dr. Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, where he teaches food history and the history of early modern Europe. He is also a Visiting Professor at Boston University, where he teaches an advanced food history course in the gastronomy program.