Frobot, a frozen yogurt vending machine, rolls its way into D.C.


Frobot creators Melissa Nelson and Jeremy O’Sullivan. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

After two weeks on the other side of the world, Aaron Kirsh came back to Washington last week with frozen yogurt on his mind.

“I was in Kazakhstan and all I could think about was Frobot,” said Kirsh, chief operating officer of the international business consultancy Cambridge Negotiation Strategies. “It’s the first thing I wanted to try when I got back.”

Frobot — a frozen yogurt vending machine created by two local accountants — rolled its way into Kirsh’s Dupont Circle offices in late May. Since then, about 50 people a day have frequented the prototype machine, which spurts out 7-ounce servings of frozen yogurt for $3 per pop.

This is how it works: Customers grab a cup, put it on the machine’s scale, and swipe their credit card. Once the payment goes through, the machine dispenses frozen yogurt.

The current prototype offers only one flavor and one size, but co-creators Melissa Nelson and Jeremy O’Sullivan said an upcoming version, scheduled to be released this fall, will allow customers to choose between two flavors and multiple sizes. Eventually, they hope to add toppings.


Employees at co-working space UberOffices at 1200 18th St. NW try out the Frobot frozen yogurt vending machine. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“We’re keeping it simple for now,” said O’Sullivan, a corporate accountant in Tysons Corner. “First we wanted to have a controlled environment to test the market.”

The company’s first machine is parked at UberOffices, a co-working space on 18th Street NW that houses 86 companies and 220 workers. It will remain there for about six weeks before the duo use what they’ve learned to make last-minute touches to the next model.

O’Sullivan, 27, and Nelson, 26, met as freshmen at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. After college, both pursued accounting careers: He at Ernst & Young, she at Deloitte. But, they decided, they wanted to try something more exciting.

“Accounting was kind of boring,” said Nelson, who recently graduated from University of Maryland Law School.

And, O’Sullivan added, he had enough of relying on Fritos and Snickers to hold him over during 13-hour work days.

“So many people are confined to their desks and rely on vending [machines],” he said. “We thought there was an opportunity there.”

They are not the only ones. This summer, after years in the making, Sprinkles plans to bring a “cupcake ATM” to its Georgetown store.

The Beverly Hills company had planned to debut a machine in 2012, but spokeswoman Nicole Schwartz said a number of faulty components clouded the start.

“We found ourselves replacing some of the parts very often, which is why we decided to wait,” she said, adding that the newest version of the machine dispenses four cupcakes at a time, not just one.

At Tysons Corner-based Frobot, Nelson and O’Sullivan have been working on the company since 2011 and have invested about $100,000 of their own savings.

A local yogurt supplier provides the current flavors, but the co-founders say the idea is to allow companies such as Pinkberry or FroZenYo to personalize the machines — which cost about $25,000 — as they wish.

They hope to have three Frobots up and running in the D.C. area this year, Nelson and O’Sullivan said, adding that they are targeting college campuses and office buildings.

“It’s really prime for any location that has a significant amount of people,” Nelson said.

At UberOffices, the yogurt machine has become an instant hit.

“People have been flocking to the Frobot,” said Cat Miller, community manager for the co-working space.

A number of employees have begun bringing their own toppings — generally fresh fruit, sometimes chocolate syrup, she said.

“And,” she added, “someone even tried to make a beer float using our keg.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business