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"The major difference between the pizza you get at a pizzeria and delivery pizza is dwell time," explains Zume CEO Julia Collins, referring to the time a pizza spends sitting in a cardboard box in the back of a delivery person’s car. And given the fact that pizza is big business in America —bringing in almost $40 billion in revenue each year, with 40 percent of that market controlled by Dominos, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s and Papa John’s — the market seems ripe for innovation in a big way.
Part of that innovation is providing a better product. Big pizza companies are adding stabilizers, and other additives to counteract that effect, and create consistency. Collins says that Zume wants "to do away with the chemistry involved in large scale delivery pizza and use technology to make food better."
So, how does a startup in Silicon Valley do that? Collins and co-founder Alex Garden (formerly an executive at Zynga and Microsoft) are betting on technology, and most importantly, delicious pizza. Here’s how:
To get their hands one of these high-tech pizzas, customers place an order via an app on their smart phone. In a nondescript building in the heart of Mountain View, a bell rings alerting a human to a new order displayed on an iPad. The cook then places a naked pizza on a conveyer belt where one of two robots, named Jojo and Pepe, dispenses sauce (one is light, one is heavy).
After another robot named Marta spreads the sauce, the pizza passes through an area where humans add toppings. Then, Bruno delicately removes it from the conveyor belt and expertly inserts it into the oven.
The delivery vehicle looks like a standard delivery truck (albeit one wrapped with images of pizzas), and is driven by one of Zume’s "pielots" (get it?). Except, unlike a typical delivery truck, Zume’s is equipped with 56 ovens that use traffic predicting technology to estimate time of arrival, and automatically turn on the oven when the truck is en route to its destination.
First the ovens are pre-loaded with a selection of pizzas that have been par-baked in the production facility. The pizzas chosen for loading on the truck are based on past orders from certain neighborhoods, allowing engineers to predict the most likely pies that will be ordered and stock the truck with those; if somehow a pie that is ordered isn’t on the truck, a car from the company’s fleet of delivery Fiats will make the trip to deliver the pizza.
The ovens, which run on the same fuel cell as the truck’s diesel engine, cooks the pizza at 800 degrees for 3.5 minutes; the pielot then ejects the pizza onto one of Zume’s specially designed packages, which are made of compressed sugar cane fiber and have specially designed divots to prevent the crust from getting soggy (even the pizza boxes are disrupted at Zume). The pielot slices the pizza, and delivers it to the door.
"Every single person has the right to high quality food, at a fair price," says Collins. "Most people are short on time. We’d all love to be [author and food activist] Michael Pollan and spend our day in a farmer’s market and bake our own bread, but that’s not possible."
To mitigate that, the pizzas are developed by executive chef Aaron Butkus, who came to the Bay Area from New York’s cult pizza favorite Roberta’s. He uses a mother dough made from a combination of Italian and American flours, and which rests for 48- 72 hours, a method which makes the crust easier to digest. The sauce is made from organic, dry-farmed tomatoes from a collaboration between lauded pizza chef Chris Bianco of Tuscon’s Pizzeria Bianco (called America’s best pizza maker by Eater critic Bill Addison), and Rob DiNapoli, a third generation canner.
Meats and produce are sourced locally, like cheese from Cypress Grove and tomatoes from Scott Park Farms, and prepared on site. And, as if one needed more convincing to ditch the chains, Collins says that each slice averages 178 calories, versus 320 calories per slice at Domino’s. "We’re spending less on repetitive labor, automating some of the repetitive tasks and spending more on the ingredients," explains Collins. The pizzas come in one size,14 inches, and range from $15-18. Flavor combinations veer towards the experimental, with options like the Sonrisa, featuring tomato sauce, mozzarella, cremini mushrooms, Calabrian chili, roasted garlic, cilantro, toasted sesame seeds, and honey, though simpler options are available for the less adventurous.
THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE PIZZA
Collins emphasizes that robots and the pizza baking truck won’t replace humans. "Automation is happening, but you have to decide what your responsibility as the business operator is, and we’ve decided human beings and jobs are sacred." That means Zume pays above minimum wage, between $15-18 per hour, and offers free health, vision, and dental benefits, plus shares in the company, all of which results in almost no turnover.
Ultimately, scalability is at the heart of Zume’s business model, and implementation of "co-botting," the collaboration between humans and robots. "We’re not using a lot of labor to put together pizza boxes, and put sauce on the pizza," she says. "Labor energy goes into recipe development, produce selection, scratch cooking- creative things that humans need to do, like tasting, designing, quality control."
THE BIG PICTURE
While Zume’s aim is to take over the world by delivering pizza just as delicious as the pies found at sit-down spots like SF’s Tony’s or Una Pizza Napoletana, its founders are thinking even bigger. Collins and Garden secured a patent that covers cooking en route for all food— not just pizza.That means any food that's cooked while it's being delivered is covered under their "systems and methods patent," which extends beyond just the hardware. It took four years and a quarter million dollars worth of legal work to secure it.
"We chose [to start with] pizza because it’s a forty billion dollar industry and because forty percent of it is controlled by these large competitors that haven’t necessarily optimized for food quality. But the truth is you can put anything in these delivery vehicles," says Collins. "That’s something to consider in terms of scalability of this concept, but right now we’re focused on pizza."
"Because we are a food company that uses all this technology, people aren’t sure where to place us, says Collins. "I think more companies will come along like us, that are really food-focused but using technology to make better food and give people better jobs."
Additionally, on-demand food is only increasing, with the rise of tech-focused companies like Munchery, Sprig, and Caviar. "What we’re finding is that folks want high-quality dining experiences at home or work or wherever they happen to be. People don’t always want to go to a restaurant to get great food," said Collins.
Now that the company’s first truck is rolling through the streets of Mountain View, more are in the works, with three planned for the end of the year, plus an expansion to San Jose. After that, it will head to San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area— and eventually the rest of the country.