Our Robot Overlords Are Now Delivering Pizza, And Cooking It On The Go : The Salt A Silicon Valley startup wants to use technology to solve the pizza paradox. It's a food that's meant to be delivered but never tastes quite as good upon arrival.
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Our Robot Overlords Are Now Delivering Pizza, And Cooking It On The Go

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Our Robot Overlords Are Now Delivering Pizza, And Cooking It On The Go

Our Robot Overlords Are Now Delivering Pizza, And Cooking It On The Go

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Silicon Valley a couple of miles down the road from Google, there's a new pizza shop. Only instead of chefs pouring marinara sauce, at Zume, pizza robots run the show. NPR's Aarti Shahani swung by for lunch.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Here's a problem that'll sound familiar. It's game night. You order pizza for you and your buddies. It arrives later than you'd hoped, and it's cold.

JULIA COLLINS: Pizza is not meant to sit in a cardboard box ever.

SHAHANI: The Zume co-founder Julia Collins preaching truth.

COLLINS: The best pizza you ever had came right out of the oven.

SHAHANI: Which is the great paradox. Pizza is a delivery food that doesn't taste as good delivered, when it's room temperature, soggy. Collins and I are standing inside Zume's solution, a delivery truck which looks standard, like FedEx or U.P.S., only it has 56 mini ovens. They're stacked neatly into a couple racks on wheels.

COLLINS: And that's how that rack locks into place.

SHAHANI: Here's how it works. A customer places an order on the app. Inside the Zume factory, a team of mostly robots assemble 14-inch pies which get loaded, parbaked, or partially baked, each into its own oven. Whether the truck has five pies or 56, it needs just one human worker.

COLLINS: She doesn't have to think about when to turn the ovens on, when to turn the ovens off. She doesn't have to think about what route to take or who to go to first. All of that is driven off of our algorithm.

SHAHANI: Four minutes before the truck is scheduled to arrive at a doorstep, the algorithm starts the oven or ovens to finish cooking that order. Each pie is then ejected into a special pizza pod, which is not cardboard.

COLLINS: It's a sugarcane fiber.

SHAHANI: Think high-performance Gore-Tex, only for pizza. The driver then parks.

COLLINS: She'll go over to the pizza cutter...

SHAHANI: Cuts the pies with a special blade...

(SOUNDBITE OF BLADE CUTTING)

SHAHANI: ...And delivers piping hot. Pizza is a $38 billion industry ready for a shakeup. One startup is making a delivery box that doubles as a pipe to smoke weed. Domino's has cars equipped with warming ovens and now even has a self-driving car in New Zealand. Zume is tackling the supply-demand mismatch. When you call a mom-and-pop store, and they say, we're backed up, they lose your business. Because Zume is run mostly by robots, they don't have that problem. Offpeak or crazy, crazy peak, they're there.

COLLINS: So we can make and deliver 288 pizzas in an hour. In our market, the fastest competitor can only do 60 pizzas in an hour.

SHAHANI: This week, Zume puts its patented trucks to work in Mountain View. County regulators gave the OK. The money Zume makes and saves through automation it spends, Collins says, on locally sourced ingredients. Collins takes me inside and shows me the menu.

COLLINS: The Saul Goodman would remind you of your favorite chicken enchiladas.

SHAHANI: It changes seasonally. One pie has poblano peppers and cremini mushrooms. Another has smoked mozzarella and corn.

COLLINS: Sweet corn is at the peak of flavor in August.

SHAHANI: And it's still in season. After reading off a dozen or so options, the CEO surprises me by assuming what I want.

COLLINS: All right. Let's order your sweet corn pizza, shall we?

SHAHANI: It's funny. I felt like you read my mind because I didn't tell you that that's what I was going to have.

COLLINS: I guess I'm good at this.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAHANI: Agreed. And the corn is sweet - so sweet - enhanced by a touch of lime zest. While I don't love the crust - it's fine, but not Brooklyn-brick-oven fine - that doesn't stop me from inhaling three slices in under five minutes. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Mountain View.

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