Our Robot Overlords Are Now Delivering Pizza, And Cooking It On The Go

Sep 29, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 2:59 pm

In Mountain View, Calif., a couple of miles down the road from Google, there's a new pizza shop. Only instead of a dozen blue-collar workers pouring marinara sauce, Zume Pizza has — you guessed it! — robots and algorithms running the show.

Their job is to solve a familiar problem: It's game night. You order pizza for you and your buddies. It arrives later than you'd hoped, aaaand it's cold.

"Pizza is not meant to sit in a cardboard box, ever," Zume co-founder Julia Collins says. "The best pizza you ever had came right out of the oven."

This is the great paradox: Pizza is a delivery food that doesn't taste as good delivered, when it's room temperature and soggy.

Collins and I are standing inside Zume's solution: a delivery truck that looks standard — like something from FedEx or UPS — only it has 56 mini-ovens. They're neatly stacked into two racks on wheels.

Here's how it works. A customer places an order on the app. Inside the Zume factory, a team of mostly robots assembles the 14-inch pies, each of which gets loaded par-baked — or partially baked — into its own oven.

Whether the truck has five pies or 56, it needs just one human worker — to drive, slice and deliver to your doorstep.

"She doesn't have to think about when to turn the ovens on, whether to turn the ovens off," Collins says. "She doesn't have to think about what route to take or [whom] to go to first. All of that is driven off of our algorithm."

Four minutes before the truck is scheduled to arrive at a doorstep, the algorithm starts the oven (or ovens) to finish cooking that order. Each pie is then ejected into a special pizza pod, which is not cardboard. It's a sugar cane fiber, kind of like high-performance Gore-Tex, only for pizza. "We're hacking every part of the process," she says.

The driver then parks, cuts the pie with a special blade and delivers it piping hot.

Pizza is a $38 billion industry in the U.S., according to the research firm CHD Expert, and many companies are trying to disrupt it. Another startup is making a delivery box that doubles as a pipe, for weed lovers everywhere. Domino's Pizza has equipped cars with ovens, to keep pies warm, and now the company is experimenting with a self-driving car (in New Zealand).

Zume is tackling the supply-demand mismatch. When you call a mom and pop store and are told "we're backed up — it'll take an hour," you hang up and it loses your business. Because Zume is run mostly by robots, it doesn't have that problem. Off-peak or during crazy, crazy peak times, those bots are there.

"No other pizza operator can actually dynamically adjust their delivery fleet to accommodate that level of demand," Collins says.

As of this week, Zume is beginning to use its patented trucks to deliver to real customers in Mountain View. County regulators in Santa Clara gave the OK after the startup explained why it didn't need three sinks and a service window (like other food trucks have).

The money Zume makes and saves through automation, it spends, Collins says, on locally sourced ingredients.

The menu changes seasonally. One pie has poblano peppers and crimini mushrooms. Another is chicken enchilada-style.

Collins goes through a dozen or so options, and then she surprises me, by assuming what I want. Correctly.

"Let's order your sweet corn pizza," she says.

I point out that I didn't tell her I wanted that, to which she says, laughing: "Well, I can't give myself too much credit. I think your eyes did widen" as she had read off the different menu options to me.

The sweet corn is so sweet, and enhanced by the lime zest. While I don't love the crust — it's fine, but not Brooklyn-brick-oven fine — I seem to be inhaling: three slices in five minutes.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Silicon Valley a couple of miles down the road from Google, there's a new pizza shop. Only instead of chefs pouring marinara sauce, at Zume, pizza robots run the show. NPR's Aarti Shahani swung by for lunch.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Here's a problem that'll sound familiar. It's game night. You order pizza for you and your buddies. It arrives later than you'd hoped, and it's cold.

JULIA COLLINS: Pizza is not meant to sit in a cardboard box ever.

SHAHANI: The Zume co-founder Julia Collins preaching truth.

COLLINS: The best pizza you ever had came right out of the oven.

SHAHANI: Which is the great paradox. Pizza is a delivery food that doesn't taste as good delivered, when it's room temperature, soggy. Collins and I are standing inside Zume's solution, a delivery truck which looks standard, like FedEx or U.P.S., only it has 56 mini ovens. They're stacked neatly into a couple racks on wheels.

COLLINS: And that's how that rack locks into place.

SHAHANI: Here's how it works. A customer places an order on the app. Inside the Zume factory, a team of mostly robots assemble 14-inch pies which get loaded, parbaked, or partially baked, each into its own oven. Whether the truck has five pies or 56, it needs just one human worker.

COLLINS: She doesn't have to think about when to turn the ovens on, when to turn the ovens off. She doesn't have to think about what route to take or who to go to first. All of that is driven off of our algorithm.

SHAHANI: Four minutes before the truck is scheduled to arrive at a doorstep, the algorithm starts the oven or ovens to finish cooking that order. Each pie is then ejected into a special pizza pod, which is not cardboard.

COLLINS: It's a sugarcane fiber.

SHAHANI: Think high-performance Gore-Tex, only for pizza. The driver then parks.

COLLINS: She'll go over to the pizza cutter...

SHAHANI: Cuts the pies with a special blade...

(SOUNDBITE OF BLADE CUTTING)

SHAHANI: ...And delivers piping hot. Pizza is a $38 billion industry ready for a shakeup. One startup is making a delivery box that doubles as a pipe to smoke weed. Domino's has cars equipped with warming ovens and now even has a self-driving car in New Zealand. Zume is tackling the supply-demand mismatch. When you call a mom-and-pop store, and they say, we're backed up, they lose your business. Because Zume is run mostly by robots, they don't have that problem. Offpeak or crazy, crazy peak, they're there.

COLLINS: So we can make and deliver 288 pizzas in an hour. In our market, the fastest competitor can only do 60 pizzas in an hour.

SHAHANI: This week, Zume puts its patented trucks to work in Mountain View. County regulators gave the OK. The money Zume makes and saves through automation it spends, Collins says, on locally sourced ingredients. Collins takes me inside and shows me the menu.

COLLINS: The Saul Goodman would remind you of your favorite chicken enchiladas.

SHAHANI: It changes seasonally. One pie has poblano peppers and cremini mushrooms. Another has smoked mozzarella and corn.

COLLINS: Sweet corn is at the peak of flavor in August.

SHAHANI: And it's still in season. After reading off a dozen or so options, the CEO surprises me by assuming what I want.

COLLINS: All right. Let's order your sweet corn pizza, shall we?

SHAHANI: It's funny. I felt like you read my mind because I didn't tell you that that's what I was going to have.

COLLINS: I guess I'm good at this.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAHANI: Agreed. And the corn is sweet - so sweet - enhanced by a touch of lime zest. While I don't love the crust - it's fine, but not Brooklyn-brick-oven fine - that doesn't stop me from inhaling three slices in under five minutes. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Mountain View. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.