NEW YORK CITY — Basketball legend Allan Houston has been the moving force behind a new program designed to empower aspiring entrepreneurs with the knowledge and skills required to be successful business owners. One of the program’s first graduates is in the process of bringing a new food vending machine to market.
Audley Wilson is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh), where he majored in entrepreneurship. He heard about the program on the radio and jumped at the opportunity to bring his concept of a unique automated hot food machine to market.
While pursuing his degree, Wilson automated his kitchen to cook rice and chicken at the touch of a button. In his studies, he focused on commercializing this concept for use in home kitchens, then concluded that it was better suited to the away-from-home foodservice market.
Wilson and some friends had launched a bar and restaurant (still in operation in Pittsburgh), which gave him extensive experience in operations and health code compliance. He applied that experience to designing his “restaurant in a box.”
Through the Allan Houston program, Wilson has been able to continue working as a senior analyst for 1-800-Flowers while he prepares to launch the SteelChef vending machine.
The SteelChef machine measures 6 ft. high, 6 ft. to 8 ft. deep and 4 ft. wide. A prototype has been constructed and debugged, and production of the first NSF-approved model is underway. Wilson has two patents pending for the food assembly and queuing technologies that enable the machine to deliver the product so rapidly.
ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT: National program director Trevor Jaha (seated) meets with budding entrepreneur Audley Wilson, a graduate of the Allan Houston Foundation Business Education and Development Program’s inaugural class, who is moving forward with bringing his Steel Chef food vending machine to market.
In use, the machine stores ingredients, preloaded into cartridges for fast replacement, at the appropriate temperature. It then assembles, cooks and dispenses menu selections on demand. It is able to prepare beef and vegetarian patties, and precooked chicken breasts, to customer order.
Frozen patties and chicken breasts are held in cartridges under refrigeration, then moved through an oven by a patent-pending conveyor system. The controller adjusts the speed (and thus the heating time) according to the item being cooked.
In addition to custom on-demand preparation, SteelChef can initiate food preparation based on predicted demand. In this mode, output is queued up in a warming compartment. After pre-preparation, the machine can dispense a burger or chicken breast every 30 seconds. Unsold product is discarded automatically after an operator-selected time interval, and the predictive program determines whether or not to prepare more.
The machine toasts the buns when a vend is initiated, applies the filling to the lower half and dispenses the selected toppings from refrigerated modules. Toppings can include bacon, cheese, lettuce, onions and peppers, as well as condiments.
Signature SteelChef sandwiches, expected to vend for $4.50 to $5, include a blackened bacon and bleu cheese burger, an El Greco burger (with feta cheese and olives) and a hickory bacon chicken sandwich. SteelChef can also assemble a customized salad from the ingredients used to garnish the sandwiches, and deliver it to the patron with a packet of dressing.
Self-cleaning capability and remote machine monitoring simplify service and maintenance for the operator. Wilson also plans to set up a “central bridge” through which he will help operators manage inventory and maintenance, and remain alert for any issues that might arise. Maintenance contracts also will be available to operators.
“We’re appealing to the Generation Y customer on the run who needs food fast and is confined within a location like a campus,” Wilson told VT. “We’re also targeting high-traffic public locations like stadiums and movie theaters.” He estimates that the machine, with a 600-burger capacity, will drive 200 vends per day and, in most cases, require service twice a week.
His alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, has agreed to test the first machine. Another potential customer runs a commissary that sells a large volume of sandwiches to vending operators, and is willing to test an adapted version of SteelChef to automate deli sandwich production in his operation, Wilson said.
Currently, the 25-year-old entrepreneur is focusing on cultivating relationships in the vending industry, including an upcoming meeting to present his concept to a national operating company. He is also continuing to seek the support of investors.
Audley Wilson can be reached by cellphone at (917) 403-1310 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Allan Houston Foundation’s Business Education & Development Program is interested in working with vending operators to help students pursue the entrepreneurial opportunities their businesses offer, and to serve as their mentors. Industry members interested in participating can telephone Trevor Jaha at (800) 806-8647, ext. 5, or email tjaha@AllanHouston.com.