If you’ve ever visited a cafeteria at a tech giant like Google or Facebook, you probably found that the food is just as tasty (or tastier) and often better for you than what you might order at a corner restaurant or make in your own kitchen.
But according to Xook CEO Raja Natarajan, this kind of access to an abundance of tasty, healthy, and free food is more the exception than the rule for US office workers. This is very different from countries like India, said Natarajan, where most corporate employers provide access to cafeterias stocked with food options for employees. This is why, after trialing a prototype for what he and cofounder Ratul Roy describe as a “food court in a box” in Bangalore, they are eyeing the US for the rollout of their robotic kiosk.
“In countries with high labor costs and high food costs, it is very hard to offer this kind of experience unless it comes with automation,” Natarajan told The Spoon in a recent interview.
To fund the manufacturing and rollout of their kiosks, the company has raised $1.3 million in pre-seed funding from a group that includes deep tech fund SRI Capital, India-based micro-VC Pitchright Ventures, investor syndicates from Letsventure and WeFounderCircle, tech accelerator Techstars, and a handful of angel investors.
According to the Xook, their first kiosk – the Xook Primus – will be able to make salads and meal bowls across a variety of cuisines. The unmanned kiosks have a 3’x3′ footprint and can make a meal in two minutes. Xook’s current pilot in Bangalore has made 60 different types of meals and is currently offering 25 of the most popular dishes.
Unlike other robotic kiosk startups, Xook plans to utilize a business model in which they provide the kiosk to a customer at no cost, and the company makes money through the sale of meals. The meals, which can be paid for by the employer or employee (or resident in a multifamily housing unit), will be replenished daily by a Xook employee located in each city.
Natarajan and Roy told me they believe this model will work, in part, because of the low cost of their machines, which will each cost about $15 thousand to manufacture. This, they say, compares to a cost of up to $70 thousand for other robotic kiosks. The founders told me they could achieve a lower cost per unit due to their custom-built robotics and easy access to the technical talent and manufacturing in India, where most of their employees are located.
Interestingly, while most of Xook’s employees are in India, the company is based in Singapore. According to the cofounders, the reason for that was they had initially planned on trialing their robots in the island country due to the business-friendly environment and the country’s embrace of high-tech options like robotic vending kiosks.
For now, though, the company is planning to launch its first pilot in the US by the end of this year and has lined up two food brands to help them enter the market. These partners, which include a salad brand and bowl meal brand, will “use Xook as a channel to market” for different locations like offices and apartment buildings.
When it launches in the US, Xook will be joining others like Doordash’s Chowbotics, SJW, Nommi, and RoboEatz, each fighting for market traction with their kiosks. Some, like Basil Street, have found the going pretty rough and have had to call it quits.
In addition to its lower cost and unique business model, Xook’s founders believe they can find a path into an increasingly crowded market for automated food kiosks by relying on food brand partners. In addition to its initial two partners, they think the Xook’s ability to handle a variety of foods will allow them to add additional partners as they grow.
“There could be multiple brands who could be serving food in the same vending machine at the same time,” said Roy. “The Xook is like a multi-brand food court in a box.”