One could be forgiven for questioning why the world needs a robot that can make 300 pizzas an hour. Clayton Wood, CEO of robot making startup Picnic, often has to answer for that.
“People say we’re solving first world problems,” he admits to AFN. “But there is a problem, and it’s a legitimate one.”
Restaurant owners in the US are feeling the squeeze from several converging trends: a shrinking food service labor force, declining in-restaurant dining, and exploding delivery and take-out demand. Considering there are more than 700,000 restaurants in the US —68% of which are “independent” establishments with fewer than 10 units — not having enough employees to meet your customers’ needs is indeed a sizeable problem.
Seattle-based Picnic is helping restaurant owners and operators do what every other industry in short supply of labor is trying to do: automate essential tasks. For Picnic’s potential customers, that happens to be making pizza.
Picnic’s team of engineers has designed a modular, automated pizza assembly system that can take any number of ingredients and topping combinations and churn out 300 12-inch pizzas per hour. It takes about a minute for the first pie to get set up, after which it can tee up an oven-ready pizza every 12 seconds. (Dough tossing not included: Picnic’s bot relies on pre-stretched crusts.)
The company launched its product in October and just secured $5 million in seed funding from Creative Ventures, Flying Fish Partners and Vulcan Capital. Its first customers are Washington state restaurant chain Zaucer Pizza and Centerplate, which handles food and hospitality for large event venues, like the Seattle Mariners’ baseball stadium.
Picnic is starting with an automated pizza maker, owing to the popularity of the food and the number of food establishments that make and serve pizza (nearly 80,000 in the US) alone, according to Wood).
“But we’re in the business of selling equipment for retrofit, so it could eventually be used for a bun, a bowl, a tortilla or a plate,” Wood explains.
He notes that while there are other startups building solutions in the nascent food robotics market, Picnic differentiates itself with machinery that is designed to handle food and then marketed to restaurant owners and operators.
“There are two other general classes of food robotics companies: ones that are applying industrial robotics to kitchens, and ones that have built their own restaurants around automation,” he explains. Both are difficult approaches. Industrial machinery is difficult to program for highly variable “inputs”—food—while the automation-based restaurant chains have to own or lease retail space to operate their restaurants.
“They’re in the restaurant business. That’s a tough business. I’d rather be in the tech business,” Wood adds.
Olympics of hardware
When your tech domain is robotics, though, that is pretty tough. The common saying among hardware investors and entrepreneurs is that “hardware is hard”. Robotics is hard hardware, jokes Wood. “And if you really want to make it hard, you apply it to food. Trying to manipulate food with robotics is like the Olympics of hardware.”
For that reason, startups building robotics for food and agriculture applications often struggle to keep costs down. In the farm tech sector, for example, harvesting specialty crops, like nuts, fruits, and vegetables, remains an elusive skill for robotics companies. Crops vary greatly in size, height, and color. They’re also delicate and require a light touch in picking, assessment and packing.
Food prep robots have to contend with the same challenges.
Because Picnic’s pizza bot is modular, it can be economically customized and configured for restaurant owners’ recipes and ingredients.
“People ask, ‘If it’s a robotic process, won’t all pizzas taste the same? Won’t it taste like frozen pizza?’ Our pledge is to use chef’s ingredients down to the brand,” explains Wood. “We can use gourmet ingredients and hand-tossed crusts. We can configure a module to handle a vicious sauce or a thicker sauce, and to apply the sauce, meat and cheese in any sequence they want.”
Naturally, the machine is more cost effective for high-volume establishments, but Wood says a business certainly doesn’t have to maintain a regular production of 300 pizzas per hour to recoup its investment.
That said, Picnic’s earliest customers will likely continue to be higher-volume establishments, like restaurant chains and stadiums. He cites other potential buyers, like school districts, and adds that the machinery can be slimmed down enough to fit in a food truck.
The most anticipated application for Picnic’s robots is in ghost kitchens and “virtual” kitchens, given the rise in on-demand food delivery.
“Ghost kitchens support carry out. They don’t need a dining room. They’re built for efficiency and production,” says Wood. “Virtual kitchens are brands that operate inside an existing kitchen, but different from the main concept—like, food options made for delivery-only that add new revenue streams for existing establishments.”
As an example, he cited an entrepreneur he met who was making grilled cheese sandwiches for delivery out of his family’s deli.
Both ghost and virtual kitchens are new types of establishments that take the pressure off restaurant owners to maintain real estate assets that fill less and less frequently, and to contend with a labor market with hundreds of thousands of unfilled food service jobs nationwide.
Indeed, a report on future restaurant trends by the National Restaurant Association predicts that amid ever-tightening profit margins for restaurants of all sizes, “restaurant physical spaces will be smaller, requiring less square footage due to the increase in delivery and takeout.” That means “more automated kitchen equipment and a change in how the typical kitchen lays out.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be any food service jobs in the future, however. Rather, employees that remain in the business will work alongside the automated machinery, says Wood, and can likely expect to be better compensated.
“Right now, the average restaurant worker’s tenure is just seven weeks,” he says, noting the time and cost burden frequent worker churn puts on restaurant owners. “Most of the people I’ve talked to are identifying a core group of employees with higher potential and paying whatever it takes to retain them.”
Workers in under-staffed kitchens seem to appreciate having mechanical support, adds Wood. In the Mariner’s stadium, he cited one chef working with Picnic’s machine who otherwise spent hours on food preparation and acknowledged the impact that advance prep and storage had on the quality of the food he served. “He said, ‘This is great! I don’t have to make pizza anymore.’”
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