This Month in Seattle Tech: Does a Startup’s Pizza Robot Leave a Bad Taste?
The loud hum of an impinger oven isn’t the typical background noise at a tech HQ with all the warmth of an Apple Store. But in a sea of computers and black swivel chairs, software engineers at Queen Anne startup Picnic will gladly grab noise cancelers if their office stove helps prove the fruitfulness of their golden goose: a seven-foot pizza-making machine.
During a recent visit, I watched as workers fed freshly kneaded dough onto the robot’s conveyor belt. From separate compartments, the machine spits cheese, sauce, and toppings onto the doughy surface in neat, programmed configurations. After 45 seconds, the pie exits as a decorated, ready-to-eat pizza. I was surprised at how good it tasted coming out of the adjacent groaning oven. Just enough grease, a fluffy crust, sauce that didn’t overwhelm. My first bite consisted of one of the longest cheese pulls I’ve ever had.
Making a pizza, just like any other dish, requires precision and consistency. But “it’s a food plagued by inconsistency,” says Picnic CEO Clayton Wood. The spreading, sprinkling, and juggling of ingredients—it leaves room for error, not to mention food waste. “It’s labor-intensive.”
Enter the Picnic Pizza Station, which has made as many as 100 automatonically correct pizzas in 45 minutes during testing and aims to hit that number on the regular. Skiers grabbing après slices at Crystal Mountain this winter or at Mariners games in 2019 may have unwittingly tried some machine pies. And a partnership with Ethan Stowell Restaurants might help usher in a bigger appetite for the machines.
This isn’t exactly another pizza vending machine a la Mr. Go. Picnic co-founder Garett Ochs conceived of the concept to automate service industry processes back in 2016. The idea was later seen as a way to ease the burden on restaurant owners and staffers in a perpetually underemployed industry. Recent pandemic restrictions and staffing shortages only heightened need for more speed, and less training, in the kitchen. But is Picnic’s pizza-maker offering workers a helping hand, or just creating literal ghost kitchens?
Robots can replace as many as 82 percent of current restaurant jobs, per a recent report. And back-of-the-house pizza-flippers are hardly the only ones in danger of getting automated away. Companies like Bear Robotics, Keenon Robotics, and Pudu Technology have developed machines that act as servers, bringing plates to tables straight from the kitchen.
Yet Wood, who took over in 2018, doesn’t see Picnic as a threat to the labor force. “If the business can operate more efficiently, under higher margins, then they stay in business. They can keep employing people. So to me, in the long run, that creates jobs.”
The process isn’t entirely automated, anyway. Human hands are still required to knead and flour dough exactingly onto a 12-inch pan, otherwise the machine’s sensors won’t read it. And someone, of course, has to load the ingredients—sauce, cheese, pepperoni into the slicer, or pre-diced ham, green peppers, and onions—that are programmed in a tablet, as well as ferry the pizza to the oven.
The machine has its human moments too. During my visit, while the dough glided under the glow of LED lighting, the robot failed to dispense red tomato sauce on one section of the dough or release those toppings. Even though it meant a whole pizza had to be tossed, I found it oddly reassuring.
Editor's Note: The story above has been updated and clarified with additional information.
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Hello! This is a monthly column recapping news at the intersection of local tech and culture—happenings you may have missed in this mercilessly fast, and often quite nebulous, cycle of innovation. But even the beat writers can’t keep up with everything. Do you know of a Seattle startup doing things that don’t make eyes glaze over at parties? A corporation behaving badly? A developer trying to hack the Mercer light cycle? We’re interested. Send your tips to [email protected] or @bybencassidy on Twitter. DMs are always open.