This robot-powered pizza company is using tech to cut delivery times in half.

 

Melia Robinson

Aug. 19, 2018, 5:57 PM

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We tried Zume Pizza to see if the pizza is as good as its tech.

Melia Robinson

Robots could kill off jobs in the future — but at least they come bearing pizza.

Founded in 2015, Zume Pizza uses robotics and artificial intelligence to make pizza more quickly. Machines press mounds of dough, squirt and spread sauce, and lift pizzas in and out of the oven, in a fraction of the time it would take human workers to do the same.

Now SoftBank is in talks to invest up to $750 million in Zume, Bloomberg reports. The cash infusion could help ramp up the pizza delivery company's side hustle, creating technology for other restaurants that want to get into the automated food truck game.

An increasing number of pizza eaters are ditching legacy brands like Domino's and Pizza Hut for newer fast-casual and delivery chains. In 2016, Business Insider toured Zume's headquarters in Mountain View, California, to see if the pizza is as good as its tech.

This is no ordinary pizza. It was made by robots.

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The concept of a robot-powered pizza delivery service came from friends and cofounders Julia Collins and Alex Garden, who wanted to make high-quality pizza more affordable.

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Collins graduated from Stanford Business School, worked as an analyst under Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, and helped launch New York City fast-casual chain Mexicue. She knew pumping pies full of chemical adulterants wasn't the answer — tech was.

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By automating the kitchen, the Zume team can fill orders quickly and accurately, and reduce delivery times to five to 20 minutes. There's no front of house, just delivery.

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The robot-made pizza had a small cameo on season four of HBO's "Silicon Valley."

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The back room at the Zume Pizza headquarters, which is capable of churning out about 370 pizzas an hour, looks more like a manufacturing plant than a restaurant kitchen.

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Collins and Garden, the ex-president of gaming company Zynga, partnered with industrial robots provider ABB Robotics to develop this Rube Goldberg-looking contraption.

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Customers order their pizzas online or using the Zume Pizza mobile app. A software algorithm sends the instructions to Zume's automated, pizza-making conveyor belt.

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When we visited in 2016, a human stretched and shaped the dough. That's no longer necessary, according to the company. The Doughbot can press any ball of dough into a pizza crust in nine seconds.

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The pizza crust slides down the conveyor belt and lands under one of two sauce dispensers, named Giorgio and Pepe. They release different amounts of sauce based on the customer's order.

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The pizza continues down the line to meet Marta, the sauce-spreading robot with arms like spider legs. She distributes sauce, made from locally grown tomatoes, in seconds.

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A human dresses the pie with cheeses and toppings. It's a difficult part of the process to automate because toppings come in different weights, sizes, and textures.

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At the end of the conveyor belt, a tall, gangly robot named Bruno sweeps the pizza onto a rack and raises it to the oven door.

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The oven cooks the pizza for about a minute at 800 degrees, which allows pockets of gas in the dough to expand and release and gives the crust bounce.

It emerges on the other side crispy and piping hot.

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A human slides the pizza into Zume's proprietary, self-cleaning pizza slicer, which crops the pie into eight perfectly proportioned slices.

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Each 14-inch pizza costs between $10 and $20, including delivery. By comparison, a large cheese pizza from Domino's, which also stretches 14 inches, starts at $15.99 and the price goes up with toppings. Domino's adds a delivery fee up to $3 and encourages tipping.

Zume, on the other hand, is a "no-tipping business."

The website says, "Hospitality is included in our pricing and we compensate the entire Zume team in an equitable and competitive way."

A human packages the order in an untraditional pizza delivery box, made from sustainably farmed sugarcane fiber, which is recyclable and compostable.

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The bottom of the container has sloped ridges and a recess in the center that force liquids to pool where they won't touch pizza and make it soggy in transit.

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In September 2016, Zume debuted a new kind of delivery vehicle.

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It goes out for service with all the pizza-making supplies it needs for the day. The pizzas are cooked en route and delivered fresh as can be.

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Zume has collected so much customer data since launch, it can "predict what pizza you want before you even order it," Collins said.

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According to the company's predicative analytics, people tend to order pizza on the weekday around the same time and have it delivered to the same location.

It allows Zume to predict a density of orders in any given area. It loads up the delivery trucks with the pizzas it thinks customers will want and sends them to that area in anticipation. This technology allows Zume to make lightning fast deliveries.

The delivery truck is retrofitted with six Welbilt ovens that can cook up to 70 pizzas per hour.

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I couldn't leave Zume without trying the pizza. I went with the popular El Camino, which includes mozzarella, pepperoni, cremini mushrooms, and poblano peppers. It costs $15.

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The crust is thin, even by East Coast standards. I was disappointed by the way the slice flopped under its own weight. The dough's flavor disappeared under the toppings.

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But, oh, what toppings. Thin-sliced pepperoni crunched with each bite, while the the mushrooms and peppers burst with juiciness. The cheese pulled apart like bubble-gum.

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The recipe wasn't perfect, but quality pizza that's delivered in under 20 minutes — and costs less than Domino's — could make Zume a worthy competitor in the pizza arena.

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