Zume Pizza, a Silicon Valley-based storeless food delivery startup targeting the San Francisco Bay Area which uses robots to bake its pies, has secured a $48 million investment in its latest VC funding round according to Axios. The company, which uses proprietary trucks to deliver robot-made fresh pizzas to Palo Alto, Stanford and Mountain View, and claims to have pioneered a robot-assisted technique for pressing pizza dough in a perfect circle in just nine seconds, previously raised over $23 million from AME Cloud Ventures, Maveron, SignalFire, and Kortschak Investments.
Zume is one of a growing number of "food automation" startups popping up in the Bay Area fusing cooking with technology. It utilizes big trucks outfitted with ovens and pizza-cooking robots that deliver fresh food to customers. Zume says its model helps it cut down on overhead costs like rent, and that robots can replace humans in areas where the tasks are unsafe, boring, or arduous.
Combine the robotic pizza chef with a driverless truck, and you get a door-to-door pizza delivery service with no humans involved whatsoever.
Zume, to be sure, is not alone in its quest to "disintermediate" humans from the fast food experience. For instance, Eatsa — which now has a number of locations in California — has made headlines in the past for letting you order healthy and low-cost quinoa-based bowls without interacting with a single human. These types of companies combine the on-demand ambitions of startups like DoorDash, Munchery, and Postmates with a kitchen technology twist, all with the aim of avoiding the typically heavy costs associated with food production and logistics. To achieve that, Zume recently hired Susan Alban, who led the launch Uber’s food delivery arm UberEats, as its new vice president of operations.
“We wanted to identify places where humans were overtaxed physically, bored, or whether the job they were doing was not safe, like sticking their hand into a 600 degree oven for six hours a day,” said company CEO and co-founder Julia Collins in an interview with The Verge. “That’s why we focused next on this practice of opening the dough.”
The company's robot, named Doughbot, is now being deployed on Zume’s “robot-enabled pizza assembly line,” where it does the job of pressing dough up to five times faster than even the most seasoned pizza spinning pros.
The company, which first began delivering pizzas last year, was founded on two core concepts: robotic automation and on-route cooking. Robotic automation is easy enough to understand. Zume, which sources machines from industrial robot maker ABB, employs these devices for tasks like dispensing the perfect amount of sauce, spreading that sauce, removing pizzas from ovens, and, now, spreading the dough with just the right thinness and crust-to-pie ratio. The various robots work in unison with humans in an assembly line-style work space attached to the company’s Mountain View facility.
“Folks often go to the robots first, because robots are sexy,” CEO Collins says. “But the founding idea of Zume was really cooking on route.”
Indeed, the robot is just a small part of the grand vision. According to The Verge, Zume Pizza uses up to six specially designed delivery vehicles the size of FedEx trucks. Each one is outfitted with dozens of pizza ovens that can simultaneously reheat hundreds of pizzas, so that each one can be placed fresh and hot into the company’s custom pizza box. That way, when someone orders pizza, it arrives in under 20 minute
In addition to robots, the company also relies on that other big buzzword du jour: "big data."
“We use predictive technology to make really high-fidelity bets on what pizzas people are going to order,” Collins says. “Early in the morning we produce a daily inventory of pizzas. We predict the total volume of pizzas and the types of pizzas that we need to satisfy that day’s demand.” That way, Zume doesn’t have to cook every pizza from scratch, while still managing to avoid the fast food pitfalls of serving precooked meals.
Zume’s ultimate goal is to make fresh, locally sourced food at reasonable prices by aggressively rethinking the costs of running a food operation dependent on delivery. Zume pizzas are priced between $10 and $20 for a single pie, and the company uses up to 60 ingredients to offer gluten-free and vegetarian options, as well as artisan-style pizzas with ingredients like arugula pesto, asparagus, and ricotta.
All ordering is done through the company’s mobile or website. There is no storefront. “So rather than paying 10 percent of sales in rent, we pay 2 percent of sales in rent,” Collins says, while “robots increase our production volume.”
The unique business model allows Zume to keep costs down without relying on contractors, like so many of the Bay Area-based food delivery startups (and ride-hailing apps). Collins says Zume has around 115 full-time employees, all of which receive benefits like health insurance. Will these employees also be automated away by robots? Collins stresses that the goal is never to fully automate the process of making and delivering food, although that's precisely what she is doing.
“Our goal was never to have end-to-end automation. It was never, ‘How can we have a pizza production operation that would have no humans?’” Collins says. Automation allows Zume employees to shift focus from laborious tasks to more creative ways, she adds. “Our best pizza spinner is really happy to work on our menu and ingredient selection.”
Of course, as the Verge cynically notes, this all sounds like the quintessential utopian dream of automation: a world where robots takeover only the most boring and physically taxing jobs and humans are free to perform creative and fulfilling work. The problem emerges when most of these humans find there are no jobs for their skillset.
As for Zume, there’s no telling how well the company will scale when it attempts to tackle a market as dense and complex as, San Francisco, the biggest target on the company’s radar, or if it were to eventually go national (or global). Furthermore, there’s also no telling how sophisticated artificial intelligence and robotics will be in just five year’s time. Who’s to say ingredient selection won’t be perfected by an algorithm? Driving Zume’s trucks most certainly will be automated by self-driving cars at some point in the future, even if that practice is still decades away on a regulatory timeline.
“We want to make sure everyone has access to high-quality, affordable food,” she says of Zume’s goal, “and to use technology to solve American’s food problem.” If that mission involves a robot that can press dough or spread sauce faster and better than a human being, can you really blame Zume for being the first to get out there and use it?
Of course, if Zume is successful, hundreds of thousands if not millions of low-wage pizza maker and delivery guy positions will be history, unleashing another round of tech-induced deflation and mass unemployment, even as the Fed continues to figure out the inflation "mystery."