Automation has been on the restaurant industry’s back burner for years. While companies like Miso Robotics dazzle the media with burger-flipping and wing-frying robots, it wasn’t until the current labor crisis that restaurant AI evolved from a promotional experiment to a permanent solution. In recent months, the pizza industry has far and away become the preeminent leader in kitchen robotics, with pizzeria automation companies like Piestro and Picnic Works signing partnerships with emerging pizza chains in need of cost-cutting solutions.
“The output of automation is consistency,” Matt Bassil, cofounder of PizzaHQ, an automated pizza restaurant based in Totowa, N.J., said. “If you ask any pizza operator, they'll tell you that the quality of their pizza on Tuesday night is different than Friday night. Tuesday night is better because they could spend more time making it, and by Friday, they’re just too busy. But for us, the quality of the pizza is the same every time.”
PizzaHQ just soft-opened a few months ago and announced a partnership with Seattle-based tech company Picnic Works to further its automated pizza process. In July, PizzaHQ opened to the public and can now make 1,500 pizzas a day using Picnic’s kitchen robots, with plans to open more locations soon.
Picnic’s robot presses the dough, auto-sauces and adds the cheese and toppings, and then it’s connected to a conveyor belt that delivers the pie to the oven. But even though the pizza is not being shaped, flipped or placed into the oven by humans, Bassil argues that it is very much not a hands-off process:
“The average person cannot take this equipment, plug it in, and all of a sudden expect to make good pizza,” Bassil said. “There are infinite settings for this equipment, with core variables and temperature settings that go over 700 degrees. […] Our experience with running pizza kitchens and mastering the craft has allowed the science to work.”
Instead of hiring pizzaiolos, Bassil said he is creating new roles at PizzaHQ that “no other pizzeria has” like communications, sales, brand strategy and engineering to handle the technology, so the company will never truly be a human-free operation.
Benson Tsai, former SpaceX engineer and founder of Stellar Pizza automated pizza trucks, agrees. Stellar Pizza is launching in Los Angeles this fall starting with four food trucks ‘staffed’ by proprietary pizza-making robots. Unlike a lot of recent pizza automation announcements, Tsai and his team of robotics engineers built their pizza bot from scratch, which can pick up and press a dough ball, prepare for toppings based on whatever a customer orders, and then move the pie into the on-board pizza oven, where it will be ready in two-and-a-half minutes.
“Right now, [humans are] doing the slicing and boxing but even that is going to change,” Tsai said. “But I view our people as important parts of the customer experience because they’re actually interacting with the people who ordered the pizzas instead of being in the back of house doing all of the repetitive labor.”
Still, he said, one of the benefits of leaning into automation is labor cost savings, which can be anywhere from 16-20% per truck just by cutting out back of house staff.
The numbers definitely don’t lie: one of the strongest arguments in favor of kitchen automation technology is cost savings. Speedy Eats — a Baton Rouge, La.-based automated restaurant that is working on not only automating pizza-making, but also wings and salad preparation — has crunched the numbers on robot investment and they come out heavily in favor of the machines.
Speedy Eats just announced a partnership with Picnic to further their kitchen automation advancement and founder Frederick “Speed” Bancroft noted that even though these machines can cost upwards of $225,000, the average cost to open a pizzeria with all of the traditional equipment in place is around $400,000 so it’s a little less than half of the cost of the traditional model, and Bancroft said he expects return on investment will be around one to two years instead of seven to ten years. Meanwhile, he said you can pay your employees more because they’ll be specialists who need to be able to run the machine instead of minimum-wage, college-aged employees.
“We can run our system with only one employee,” Bancroft said. “We’re planning to do a labor audit when we get our first unit out into the market. […] From an efficiency standpoint, a pizzeria typically has labor costs as a ratio of sales of 30%, so that’s where you’re able to significantly increase your profitability.”
But the question is, why does it seem like we’re seeing more automation activity in emerging pizza brands over other sectors of the restaurant industry? Even larger companies like Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, which has never sold pizzas before in its 46-year-history, recently announced a partnership with Piestro technology company to test out automated pizza ovens inside up to 100 stores as a new revenue stream with relatively low investment costs.
According to many of the operators we spoke to, pizza is the best product to experiment with in the world of kitchen robotics because the process is so easy to automate, especially since it's already done by assembly line.
“Pizza is a low-hanging fruit,” Bancroft said. “These restaurants are changing and getting involved with Piestro and Picnic because it’s a great way to hub and spoke your business and serve communities that you couldn’t normally serve pizzas in and you can do it by using your existing kitchen and staff. It’s a great synergy to use technology to expand your bottom line.”
But does this mean that in five years’ time pizzaiolos will no longer exist, and robots will be preparing every pepperoni slice around the country? Likely not, Benson Tsai said.
“There will always be a place for the sit-down restaurants and pizzaiolos,” he said. “There is space in the food industry for all sorts of experiences. We’re trying to make a high-quality product with automation, and at the end of the day people already consume a lot of food made by machines, so why not?”
Contact Joanna at [email protected]
Find her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi