From the outside, it doesn’t look very different from any old food truck you know. But inside, it’s the world’s most powerful pizza-making machine on four wheels, custom-built like the Batmobile’s corpulent cousin, loaded with 56 separate ovens all coordinated with machine-learning algorithms and GPS. When it’s four minutes out from its next delivery, the oven that contains the corresponding pizza fires up automatically, baking the pie so it’s fresh the very moment the truck pulls into the driveway.
That’s right: In the future, you may never have to eat lukewarm pizza again thanks to Zume Pizza–the sort of food chain that could only be born in Google’s backyard of Mountain View, California. Founded by Zynga and Microsoft alum Alex Garden and Danny Meyer-trained restaurateur Julia Collins, Zume is how you might imagine Domino’s in 2027. Zume’s pizza is not only no-additive, computer-optimized, and baked en-route to your house, it’s also made with robot assistance.
When Zume opens for business at 11 a.m. each day, an algorithm has already predicted what pizza orders should be pre-prepared. Pizza customers are incredibly habitual, often ordering the same toppings every week, but Zume pushes its predictive model further by designing a menu that eliminates the specificity of those predictions.
Instead of building a pizza by toppings, customers choose prebuilt combinations from the menu. And that allows the algorithm to guess correctly more often. “Our technology is not designed for a full-scale customization of pizza,” admits Collins. “We try to approach it by having a very well-curated menu.”
Orders then hit the factory-like assembly line, where humans toss the dough and place the veggies, but sauce squirts from an overhead tube, and the finished pizza is loaded into an oven carefully, not by a person, but by a Kuka-style robot arm. After a quick par-cook, the pizzas are loaded onto one of four trucks to await orders from humans. And when those humans do place their orders, a driver is guided to each location by GPS while the final bake happens automatically, beginning when the truck is just four minutes away.
Once it arrives, the driver only needs to push a button on the oven to eject the pizza and bring it to the truck’s pneumatic, self-cleaning slicer, which cuts it into eight perfect slices. “Right now humans pull it out of the oven [and] into the cutter, but we’re working on a robotic arm to do that,” notes Collins. Then, all that’s needed is a quick toss of herbs, and the lid of the company’s patented sugarcane box is pressed down.
It’s the perfect pizza delivery system–and complete overkill for the 250 pizzas Zume currently delivers a day. But the company has big ambitions: It plans to do “10 times” the business by the end of 2017, expanding coverage around the Bay Area through 2018, and eyeing an L.A. expansion, too.
The question that remains: Should there be a limit to what Zume automates? “We’re transparent about what what jobs robots have in our business and what they don’t,” says Collins. “Humans cut veggies, make sauce, they create the pizza, they write the software. There are so many creative endeavors that are human-led and always will be. But there are other things we do that are perfect for robots. Pulling 2,000 pizzas in and out of an 800 degree oven a day? Perfect for a robot.”
Yet it’s easy to imagine the possibility of a self-driving truck, fit with a pizza-arm in the back, eliminating the need for humans altogether, and essentially turning the Domino’s of the future into an algorithmic network of pie-slinging drones, parked in your neighborhood like a robo-dough-dealer ready to hook you up with your next fix. “So far, we feel like it’s really important to maintain the human element,” says Collins. “There’s nowhere in our development pipeline with self-driving vehicles. We’re more interested in expanding to more customers and more types of food than a fully automated end-to-end system.”
Indeed, rather than merely scaling Zume’s pizza business nationwide (and going for its share of the $46 billion pizza market), the company hopes to use its core delivery technology to expand its offerings to include other types of food. Zume is currently developing a robot that can serve kombucha and other craft carbonated beverages on the road. Collins also suggests that froyo is an excellent possibility, and Zume is regularly meeting with companies that have built their own food robots that could hitch a ride on a truck. “Maybe you’re the owner of the pancake robot startup,” Collins suggests after I mention it. “I say you look like you have a market, but you don’t want to run [a delivery service]. For a fee, we’ll give you five cubic feet on our delivery vehicle, and now you have a solution on the West Coast or nationally.”
“Then we become, at scale, the Amazon of food delivery as opposed to the Uber of pizza,” Collins offers, with the sort of articulation of a line served 800 times a day.
That’s the vision–for Zume the pizza company to become Zume the made-on-site delivery company. And while it may be a vision that’s a bit too ambitious, given that chains like Domino’s make billions in revenue a year by serving up a single, relatively streamlined product, Zume is right to bet on one thing: the market for food delivery that uses as little pesky human labor as possible.