Robots rolling in dough | News | Mountain View Online |


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, the 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 near Mountain View's Rex Manor 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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11 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Jul 7, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Their location (250 Polaris Avenue) definitely isn't Willowgate, it's Rex Manor or possibly Jackson Park although I think it's the former since it's on the west side of Shoreline Boulevard.

Interesting, I may try this out in the near future and mentally compare it to a pizza from the nearby mom-and-pop delivery service (Fast Pizza on Moffett Boulevard) or an upscale pizza like something from Pizzeria Delfina.

13 people like this
Posted by Jim Pitts
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2016 at 6:47 pm

I've had it twice now and was barely able to eat a little over a slice. Bad dough, horrible sauce, very greasy pepperoni. Our first pizza took over an hour and 15 minutes from order to delivery just over a mile away. If you think Little Cesar's is gourmet then you'll love Zume.....If you love real pizza (Blue Line, Amici's, etc) then you are going to be extremely disappointed!
They need the robots to 're-boot' their recipes....Get it?!?!

23 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Jul 7, 2016 at 8:30 pm

@Jim Pitts:

Thanks for your real-world review.

I will now hold off on any Zume pizza purchase for a year. If they are still around in mid-2017, I might try it.

At this point, my inclination is that some venture capitalist should be PAYING ME to eat their pizzas. We'll see in the long run if this works.

The restaurant industry is a very low-margin business, not sure if automation will increase margins by magnitudes.

Might be better designing robots to throw darts at the stock pages, as a simple investment tool. At least you wouldn't be paying a monkey to do it.

Anyhow, thanks for the feedback. Very interesting times around here.

8 people like this
Posted by eric
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2016 at 12:50 am

I've ordered from Zume twice as well. One time I was quite happy with the pizza, the other, not so much. Crust a bit underdone and the cheese wasn't great (maybe also underdone). They are still essentially in beta testing, so I'm ok giving them some rope.

Both of my orders had technical glitches. As will happen with a new service, tech or otherwise. Customer service was very good about follow up in both cases.

In my subjective opinion, they're better than Amici's even on a bad day (but if you like a pizza that you can wring out a gallon of oil from a medium pie, you may disagree). Not as good as Blue Line or similar

12 people like this
Posted by No thanks
a resident of Castro City
on Jul 8, 2016 at 9:03 am

If you have money to burn, as apparently some investors and hungry people do, go for it. Same very disappointing experiences for me as well. Tried it twice. Crust is spongy like warm Wonder bread. The toppings sit in the middle in a disproportionate mess. The crust was burned on one. Both times one-third of the pizza ended up in the trash. Delivery was far from zoom-y. The estimated "8 minutes" left on the estimated arrival time stayed that way for over 30 minutes and arrived one hour and five minutes after I ordered it. It then said the delivery person was at my door when in fact he was no where in sight and still driving up. I could have walked to the local pizza shop, eaten and gotten back in that time. I was supposed to get a free pizza, there was a glitch, I called in and was told I would be credited and never got it. Apparently they are trying to reinvent pizza from the dough up as well. The selections are weird and nothing like traditional pizza. Lastly, I don't like to see entry level jobs being replaced by robots. Some people rely on such jobs. No worries, this will fail if they don't figure out the major glitches they are having.

9 people like this
Posted by L. Minnelli
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2016 at 9:49 am

Terrible pizza. Oiliest I have ever had in my life. Cheese was a congealed mess. Tasteless, limp crust. Takes me back to high school hot lunch days. Though those were crispier and weren't an oil slick lol
The best parts of this company are that the drivers are nice and the pizza boxes are environmentally friendly.
Everything else- from the menu, tracking system, incorrect ETA's and terrible product are why I won't order again.

9 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2016 at 2:05 pm

The lack of consistent quality is troublesome to hear.

Human beings are still loading these pizzas into boxes, putting them into cars and delivering them. A human being is deciding whether or not the final product is satisfactory enough for a paying customer and right now it appears that QA is very spotty.

I am sitting this one out for the foreseeable future.

5 people like this
Posted by intrigued
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jul 8, 2016 at 2:52 pm

I like the mobile oven truck idea. Fresh out of the oven or cook while you deliver can provide some options like larger delivery route and a better product.

7 people like this
Posted by Say No To The Robot Overlords
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jul 8, 2016 at 4:12 pm

Sorry, but this concept doesn't appeal to me. At. All.

There are times when human labor is superior to anything a machine can accomplish -- and making pizzas is one of those labors that is better served by human hands.

15 people like this
Posted by Smith-Ricardo
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 8, 2016 at 4:39 pm

This is a perfect example of The Law of Unintended Consequences for well-meaning but economically challenged newbies who promote excessively high, over market rate $15+/hr minimum wage laws. The fast food industry is entry level labor-intensive, and it is very ripe for cost savings achieved by replacing humans with automation. TANSTAFL --- "There are no such things as free lunches" (free economic lunches for the economically-challenged). Adam Smith and Ricardo still rule real world common-sense economics after all of these years. How fitting!

6 people like this
Posted by Poke Lover
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2016 at 5:27 pm

@Reader They *are* paying you to eat their pizza :) Between their coupons and referrals, we are yet to pay for one. It's OK, for free...

9 people like this
Posted by Say no to pizza making robots
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 8, 2016 at 5:57 pm

Oh my gosh, my deceased Italian family members are rolling in their graves...and the living ones are laughing their asses off. Pizza making robots....never in my house.
To think of all the training and years it takes to become a master pizza maker...and to have robots do the work is a downright insult.
What a joke...hopefully they will be going down like the rest of the techies who think they know what to do in the kitchen.

8 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2016 at 7:28 pm

We tried the pizza with a buy one get one free promo. Tried two kinds and were quite happy with the result. Was still warm with nicely melted cheese. Ordering online was quick and easy and the pizza was delivered super fast. Not paying for delivery and no tipping made it a real deal. Delivery driver was very friendly. Met our expectations for this type of pizza service!

9 people like this
Posted by AllYouCanEat
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 9, 2016 at 12:52 am

The food industry is starting to look very seriously at automation given the living wage movement. This is a perfect example of technology killing jobs.

13 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 9, 2016 at 1:40 pm

Spin phrases like "living wage" reveal concern and compassion for the human toll of high living costs. But they also imply that the person using them has never tried to run a small business with a payroll, and lacks basic economics intuition.

Forcing up pay levels beyond their market value (like forcing down prices of something in short supply) sounds great to people whose perception doesn't embrace the whole economic reality they're concerned about, just the part of it that got their attention (the wage's recipient, here). But laws dictating a market price *always* have further economic effects beyond what their advocates prefer to think about. These effects are utterly predictable, they're how markets work. (Many people are very good at excluding the larger economic reality from their thoughts, as you can see in Town Square comments on other stories involving pricing.) When those wages come from a business that, itself, sells its product into a competitive market -- pizza, for instance -- then (contrary to some amazing assumptions) wage increases doesn't come out of some fat cat's profits; they change how the firm must operate to survive.

Almost half of Washington DC employers recently reported laying off workers or reducing hours since 2014 when DC's hourly legal min. wage went from $8.25 to $11.50 (the city council there has now raised it to $15). Workers who struggled under the old wages struggle worse when their jobs disappear completely.

A more inclusive economic perspective would call this automation story not "a perfect example of technology killing jobs" but a perfect example of wage demands killing jobs. The robot technology is the symptom -- the reaction -- not the underlying condition.

4 people like this
Posted by RP
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 12, 2016 at 6:12 pm

The pizza was excellent, the packaging showed thoughtful design, the delivery was quick. And they have a no-tipping policy. What's not to like?

13 people like this
Posted by Pizza Steve
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 13, 2016 at 2:26 pm

What's not to like? Well, for one thing, the PIZZA! It was teeeeeerrible!!!!

There are so many places making quality pies with quality ingredients. Life is just too short to eat bad pizza, no matter how fancy the process of it coming to my plate is. Once it gets to my plate, its all and only about the taste. This is where Zume fails

5 people like this
Posted by oscar
a resident of another community
on Jul 26, 2017 at 5:02 pm

I want to reiterate in the strongest possible terms what a terrible pizza it is. If the owners set out to design a pizza crust that tasted like carboard, was undercooked, used the least expensive and tasteless mozarella money can buy (most likely low moisture non whole milk mozarella or maybe it could be artificial mozarella) bad quality pepperoni (however the sausage, the three little specks per slice was very good) and no taste sauce...then they have accomplished their goal to have a robot make a pizza that even a robot would not eat. I like the creativity of the project, however the implementation of the product just will not succeed unless you make drastic changes to the crust and the associated ingredients. Dominoes pizza at its worst stage was better than this.

5 people like this
Posted by Wow
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 26, 2017 at 5:29 pm

That must have been some angry bad pizza for oscar to come back and bump a 1 year old thread :)

7 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 26, 2017 at 10:10 pm

"Wow" is right (at least, something, or someone, comes across angry bad) though "oscar from another community" also (unwittingly) showed what's wrong with comments about how a variable product like a pizza from a given maker "is." There's no "is," there's just the particular pizza you tried and are writing about.

Zume makes several styles of pizzas, some are rather creative. Not all have "sauce" or "sausage," as the comment implied, and of course, they vary batch to batch. I tried a few over time, found them competitive with most pizzerias in town, maybe a little more creative, certainly never once anything most people would judge worse than Domino's. Maybe "oscar" had bad luck, or maybe "oscar" views everything like that. Or:

With these discussion forums allowing unregistered anonymous comments, no reader can possibly know if "oscar's" was a sincere customer comment (however extreme or oddball), or a disinformation post from a competitor, a justly fired problem employee, etc. There's evidence Zume Pizza got deliberate online attacks of that kind before. Which are known to make up some of the writing on anonymous business comment sites like Yelp. Which, in turn, might be only fair -- given that when Zume started business, its Yelp page was already loaded with about 15 five-star reviews, all short, with gushing praise, from people with very low total Yelp review counts even months later. That's the exact profile of organized company-shill Yelp praise (employees, owners, etc), and even less subtle than usual (even the world's best restaurant wouldn't get 15 gushing 5-star Yelp reviews in a row when it's starting out).

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