I was so thoroughly terrified the first time I saw Terminator 2. The idea that artificial intelligence could bring on a global apocalypse seemed eerily realistic. It’s been 30 years since that movie came out and I’m no longer concerned about Terminators, but I am concerned about robots taking over…our pizzerias. These past couple of months I’ve received too many messages about robotic pizza makers for them not to be taken seriously.
My first exposure to robo-pizza came in 2016 when I met Zume co-founder Julia Collins at Pizza Expo. She told me about the company’s vision of using machine learning and AI to train an army of pizza-bots. The idea was to send par-baked pizzas out for delivery on trucks outfitted with dozens of ovens, which were programmed to finish the bake while in transit. Wild idea, but maybe too large in scope. Zume raised hundreds of millions of dollars but discontinued their pizza delivery model in early 2020. Perhaps they flew too close to the sun.
The vision for these new robotic pizza solutions is much tighter; they’re more like vending machines than restaurant replacements. A touch screen lets the user select their pizza, which is prepped and baked inside the standalone unit in a matter of minutes. Once complete, the pie emerges in its own pizza box ready for consumption.
A good example of the model is PizzaForno, which currently has 28 machines across Canada. You’ll find their machines in parking lots or inside public spaces like airports and hospitals. Their machine pumps out a fresh pie in under five minutes. While your pizza bakes, the machine shows a series of videos about the process with a progress bar below. Customers even have the option of grabbing a take-and-bake version of any pizza for about a dollar less than a baked version. But that’s about the only option you have.
Since they store pre-made pies, there’s no option for customization. Based on the videos and photos I’ve seen, nobody has yet figured out how to bake a pizza properly inside one of these machines. The pizzas emerge from their boxes uncut, so the customer has to figure that part out on their own. It’s clear that speed is prioritized over quality. These robotic pizza stations aren’t an imminent threat to independent pizzerias. They’re either a novelty or they’re good for emergency situations.
That being said, I do think there’s a lot we can learn from the emerging robotic pizza making industry.
1. People value speed, accuracy and convenience.
2. The contact-free mindset we picked up during COVID isn’t going anywhere.
3. There must be something going on that I don’t understand because investors have already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this technology. Either that or they’re all just wrong.
I think the potential rise of the pizza-bots is a good reminder that what makes independent pizzerias so special is the fact that they’re the opposite. Human contact, whether with the dough or with the customer, is what makes pizzerias so special. Embrace that and you’ll avoid a Terminator apocalypse.
SCOTT WIENER is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org Instagram: @scottspizzatours.