Robots rolling in dough

Mountain View's Zume aims to automate pizza delivery from start to finish

Plenty of tech-savvy start-ups nestled in Mountain View have striven to save the world while raking in cash – but this one may be the first trying to do so by hawking pizza.

With three patents and $5.7 million in funding, new venture Zume is a pizza company like none other, with aspirations to take that investment dough, sprinkle in some technology and heat up the Bay Area food scene.

That might seem a tall order, especially considering that Zume has been in business for barely three months – and there's hardly a more crowded market than pizza. Yet in true start-up fashion, this newcomer to the pizza-delivery world is already eyeing rapid expansion with plans to open seven more branches throughout the Bay Area by 2018.

So why are investors so keen on Zume? Short answer: robots.

Long answer – the company is positioning itself to take advantage of automation, particularly the potential to have a pizza kitchen and delivery system that can essentially run on autopilot. That means a digitized ordering system, a robotic pizza assembly line and the promise of special trucks that can bake pizzas en route and someday – perhaps – use self-driving technology for deliveries.

To hear the founders tell it, though the pizza company has been their brainchild for the last four years, it's only in recent days that Zume has been ready for public consumption. Founders Alex Garden and Julia Collins say their idea boils down to making delivery pizza that is as good or better than any pie ordered at a sit-down pizzeria.

Zume operates out of a nondescript office space tucked in Mountain View's Willowgate neighborhood. It would be pretty much unrecognizable from the outside if not for the company's colorful delivery fleet parked along the side. Inside, pizzas are ubiquitous – pizza-inspired art, pizza-slice-shaped air mattresses and a constant supply of complimentary pies to sample in the office break room.

A former president at the video-game company Zynga, Garden says he's been slowly developing Zume after getting interested in ways to optimize the $39-billion pizza business. It's a line of work with a thin profit margin, he says, dominated by big players like Domino's and Papa John's that can lean on their sizable economy-of-scale advantage. Very much the tech visionary of the team, Garden started work in 2012 to secure patents for new ovens, assembly lines and pizza boxes in an effort to streamline a delivery kitchen.

Collins, the CEO of the company, joined last year and brought experience from the competitive New York City restaurant scene. Cheerful, energetic and an extremely fast talker, she had launched her own restaurant chain Mexicue and helped manage the Harlem Afro-Asian restaurant Cecil, which she proudly points out was singled out by Esquire magazine as America's best restaurant in 2014. She even worked for about two years for East Coast artisanal food distributor Murray's Cheese, during which she helped create a "meltability index" to compare how well about 120 types of cheese worked in a grilled-cheese sandwich. Gouda, she said, is hands down the best for the task, although it works well when paired with something aged and sharp.

Sitting in the conference room at Zume headquarters, Collins and Garden used a smartphone to order up two of their pizzas off the menu, and they led a quick tour of their production line. We were met in the kitchen by Aaron Butkus, Zume's head chef, who had recently been hired after working at Roberta's Pizza, considered one of Brooklyn's best pizzerias. Butkus talked through the process as two discs of dough moved down the kitchen conveyor belt. A pair of dangling hoses squirted a puddle of sauce onto the dough and the next device down the line stroked the sauce around the dough in a star-like pattern.

"These machines will be mimicking my hands, even the way I spread the sauce," Butkus said. "It aligns technology with human (technique), but otherwise it feels the same."

Plenty of steps in the process are still handled by the humans, such as spreading the cheese and adding toppings. But down the road, those too would be automated, Collins said. One of the kitchen's most expensive pieces, a $40,000 robotic arm that looked like it belonged in a semiconductor plant stood at the end of the conveyor belt to scoop up the uncooked pizzas and carefully place them in the oven. Start to finish, the Zume kitchen could churn out 360 pizzas an hour, Collins said.

Company officials are already considering other meals that could be added to the robo-assembly line. If robots could be designed to make a pizza, it wouldn't be much harder to get them to prepare a salad, Collins said.

"You could have a salad robot, an omelet robot, a hamburger robot – this works for anything!" she said.

For now, the company is holding back on its biggest innovation of all: delivery trucks outfitted with mobile ovens to allow cooking while enroute to customers. It would be a huge advantage, Collins said, because not only would it greatly speed up delivery, but it would also provide a much tastier pizza.

"If you want the best food in the world, it's coming straight out of the oven," Collins said. "Delivery pizza is pretty good, but it's not the same as what you get as when you order in the restaurant."

For now, the company is waiting for approvals from the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health, which does not allow standard food trucks with human chefs to cook while driving. Speaking for the department, Program Manager Rochelle Gaddi said Zume's idea is unprecedented and her team would need to do quite a bit of research to evaluate its safety issues. When Zume submits all of its information, Gaddi said, her team will need about three weeks to fully review it.

"This proposal is quite revolutionary," Gaddi admitted. "We've never heard of anything quite like this."

In the back lot of Zume's offices was a pizza truck the size of a UPS carrier already equipped with ovens and ready to go as soon as health officials give it the green light. The company also has a fleet of smaller Fiat compacts that are ready for ovens as well as self-driving technology. Collins pointed out that the Fiats are the same size as Google's self-driving cars, so it should be easy to adopt the technology once it's available. For now, the company is cooking the pizzas at its central headquarters and using four delivery drivers.

The lesser-known technological marvel at Zume is the company's unique boxes, Garden said. He decided to ditch the traditional cardboard pizza box for a clamshell-like container tailored to prevent the crust from soaking in grease and to retain flavor better. Made from biodegradable sugar-cane fiber, that box design was so important to Garden that he spent years securing a patent for it.

Much of the media attention Zume has received so far has focused on the company's technology angle – what Garden dubbed "the robot pizza circus" – but when they talk, the two founders make sure not to overplay their nifty tech. Instead, they talk about how their ingredients are sourced from local farms, their top-notch kitchen crew, and how their dough is prepared 48 hours in advance. Harnessing technology is just one step toward creating the perfect pizza on demand, Garden and Collins said.

"What if quality for our customers was an absolute, but we're willing to take on any kind of technology overhead costs?" Garden said. "Our idea is to use this (technology) to allow us to make food that's tastier and healthier for people."

Collins said Zume's current 34-member team had all lost weight from eating regular helpings of their company's pizza. It was a case of the "European mystery," she said: a high-fat, high-quality diet that ultimately proves to be the healthier option.

Such anecdotal evidence makes for good marketing promotion. The emphasis on natural ingredients and quality also might be intended to distance Zume from the bad reputation assembly lines and automation have in the food world – that is, cheaper products of questionable nutritional value. Collins emphatically said that the overall quality of Zume's pizza is their top priority.

"We've automated some of the process, but we want to make sure that automation isn't going against the ideas of good food and culture," she said. "The robots are here to facilitate that process."

The pizzas arrived in the company's conference room, a Southwestern-themed combo called "Sonrisa" and the "Mrs. B," a sausage, tomato and basil recipe that came from the head chef's grandma. As this reporter sampled them, Garden was intent on getting a verdict.

It was a tasty pizza, but was it the best I've had? That was hard to say.

Garden seemed a tad disappointed by the response, but bounced back quickly.

"Well, we're getting better every day!" he said cheerfully.

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Like this comment
Posted by Hops
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 9, 2016 at 6:47 pm

Neat! I might try it sometime.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim Pitts
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 23, 2016 at 3:42 pm

Quite simply the WORST pizza I have ever had! I've had it twice, both times free, and have yet to even eat a full slice without throwing it away. Flavorless white bread crust, greasy pepperoni, slow delivery (my 1st pizza took 80 minutes to go 1.1 miles). Great idea, crappy execution!
Maybe the robots need to 're-boot' the recipe....At the bear minimum they need a new chef for sure!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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