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The pizza-making robots that want to change the world

David Pogue
·Tech Critic

HBO’s comedy “Silicon Valley” makes fun of the way even boring startup tech companies adopt the same mission statement: “To make the world a better place.”

But serial entrepreneur and former Microsoft executive Alex Garden isn’t shy about stating his new company’s path to making the world a better place—through pizza. It’s not just any pizza, though. Zume pizzas are made by robots, and they’re cooked in pizza ovens inside delivery trucks.

Alex Garden (right) treats me to the finished product.
Alex Garden (right) treats me to the finished product.

“One of the founding principles of this company is that every American has a right to a healthy meal they can afford,” he told me. “If you look at pizza, what is it? It’s high-quality bread, and high-quality organic vegetables, and meats and cheeses. All of these things are things that are good for you in moderation. And the number of calories really is a function of how much sugar is in the food. Zume Pizza is half the calories per slice, roughly half the cholesterol and half the fat, of any of the national leading chains.”

How? “The main reason is sugar,” says Garden, whose pizzas range in price from $10 for a cheese to $20 for a pineapple express.

“We don’t put any extra sugar in the sauce. We don’t put any extra sugar in the dough. And we let our dough age for 24 hours; during that process, the fermentation of the dough further reduces the sugar in it.”

He also has much to say about where he gets his ingredients—directly from the providers, without the warehouses and distribution channels that, say, Pizza Hut (YUM) or Domino’s (DPZ) employ. He uses software—predictive algorithms—to know what he’ll need when. He makes his sausage and tomato sauce in-house.

But that’s not the most headline-grabbing feature of Zume pizza, which was founded in 2015 and currently delivers in Mountain View, California, and surrounding areas. The biggest feature is the robots.

The robots

Inside the Zume kitchen, robots are displacing more human workers every passing month. These days, one robot presses out the dough into the familiar flattened circle; a second and third (Pepe and Giorgio) squirt tomato sauce or white sauce onto each pie; a fourth (Marta) spreads the sauce around (“perfectly, but not too perfectly,” Garden says). Humans apply the toppings, but then a fourth machine (Bruno) scoops up the pizza from the conveyor belt and delicately lays it into the baking oven; a fifth (Leonardo) chops it neatly into eight slices with a single, 200-pounds-of-force stroke.

Pepe squirts tomato sauce all day long.
Pepe squirts tomato sauce all day long.

Eventually, Garden and his cofounder Julia Collins intend to replace all of the humans in their pizza shop.

The robots are fun to watch—as long as you can avoid thinking, “This is what the end of human employment looks like.”

But Garden insists that replacing the people is also part of making the world a better place.

“The automation exists so that we can eliminate boring, repetitive jobs, and provide a more rewarding work environment for our employees,” he says. “And it exists so that we can buy higher quality ingredients. That’s the reason why we use it.”

For example, he says, “taking a pizza off of a production line and putting it into an 800-degree oven is actually not particularly rewarding, and it’s also quite dangerous. So we found a way to automate that work now that was previously done by a person.

“So what happens to the person? Well, good news. We’re a high-growth company. We have people who’ve moved from a role in the kitchen to other roles—to customer support or to finance. You come in and prove that you can work the Zume way, and we make a lifetime commitment to you in return.”

The math still didn’t work for me. “But today, 100 people work here,” I said. “If you didn’t have the robots, it would be 115.”

“That is true,” he replied, “but here’s the point you have to consider. If you took a national competitor that we compete against, what percentage of their workforce are making the absolute rock-bottom minimum wage for the place they work? $7 an hour, $7.50 an hour? Do they have benefits? Is it a safe job? What hours are they working?

“Every employee in this company makes a minimum of $15 an hour. Everyone gets full medical, dental, vision [insurance] for them and for their families. And everyone, when they hit their six-month mark, becomes a shareholder. So you can make an argument that the absolute number of employed people is the way to go; we don’t believe that.”

In half a second, this machine cuts the 14-inch pizza into 8 slices.
In half a second, this machine cuts the 14-inch pizza into 8 slices.

Inside the box

Garden and his team have obsessed over every aspect of the American pizza-delivery system—including the box. Zume’s pizza is excellent, but the box is a masterpiece. (“So you redesigned the box?” I asked him. His reply: “We didn’t redesign the box. We designed the box.”)

It’s made of compressed sugar cane (!), so it’s compostable, biodegradable, and collapsible—you can fold it up to fit your compost or trash can. Garden says that it also keeps the pizza warmer, keeps it dry, and prevents it from getting soggy, thanks to eight narrow channels below the pizza, like spokes. They conduct moisture down and away from the crust, pooling in a shallow well under the middle. “Your hands will be completely clean after you eat a Zume pizza, because there’s no grease or sogginess anywhere.”

(This I found hard to believe. But as my family discovered when we ate Zume pizza that night, it’s absolutely true: Our fingers were not greasy.)

The most thought-through pizza box in America.
The most thought-through pizza box in America.

The box’s lid slips under the lower box, which (a) creates a nice little stand and (b) doesn’t occupy your entire table with the ugly, greasy open lid, as a regular box does.

It even has shallow round depressions that match depressions in the top of the lid, so that stacked boxes sort of interlock. “With one hand, you can carry five pizzas and walk around, and there’s no hope of them falling over,” Garden points out.

The truck concept

But Alex Garden isn’t finished yet. He’s also reinvented the delivery truck.

Each one contains 28 or 56 individual pizza ovens. By consulting GPS, the truck fires up the oven when it’s four minutes away from your house, so that the pizza is coming out of the oven as the truck arrives.

The pizzas cook in their own little ovens–in the truck.
The pizzas cook in their own little ovens–in the truck.

That cook-en-route system might sound like it was designed to give you freshly baked pizza, but it was actually Garden’s solution to a knotty governmental problem: It’s against the law for workers to cook food in a truck while it’s moving.

The solution, of course, was to automate the cooking while in motion. No person is involved, and so no laws are broken.

Laws also dictate, by the way, that a food truck must contain a three-compartment sink—for washing utensils, spatulas, and so on. Garden didn’t want to devote precious oven space to some sink apparatus. So he came up with a utensil-free truck. As the pizza finishes cooking, it ejects from its oven like a CD from its player, and goes directly into the Zume pizza box. “No one ever touches the food,” he says, and so there’s no need for a sink in the truck.

Predictive pizza

The part of Zume’s master plan that I found hardest to believe was that often, your pizza is on its truck before you even order it. Garden says that Zume’s AI software predicts what pizzas its customers will order, when, and pre-loads them onto the truck. How could he possibly know what his customers will order?

“Do you order pizza?” he asked me.

Yes, I told him.

“And how often would you say when you order pizza, you get the same thing you got last time?”

“Probably 95% of the time,” I admitted.

“Usually on the same day that week? Yeah. That makes you like most of the other people in the country. So if you think about that…Plus things like, when there’s a game you get more orders; when it’s hot out, you get fewer orders; you sell a lot more cheese pizza around 6:00 p.m. than you do at 9:00 p.m.; [you get spikes during] political debates; and another three or four dozen factors that we take into consideration when we’re predicting volume.

“Then we look at it neighborhood by neighborhood. Perhaps there’s a neighborhood that really likes Hawaiian pizza, there’s another neighborhood who really likes pepperoni pizza. So we have all of these signals and they give us the ability to predict about 95% of the time what people are going to order, before they do.”

And what if there’s a run on pineapple pizza on a weird day?

“We have what we called field reloading, which is giving the trucks more inventory in flight. It’s almost like air-to-air refueling in the Air Force.”

Zume vs the World

Zume has been steadily expanding the towns its trucks can reach: Now, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, and East Palo Alto. Next year, all of California; then to the whole country; then the world.

That’s the plan, anyway.

Will Zume’s robots and lofty goals really make the world a better place?

Well, already they’re making the world a better pizza—and that’s a good start.

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Marty Cooper, inventor of the cellphone: The next step is implantables

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David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.