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High-tech Zume Pizza is ready for next growth phase

When restaurateurs would marvel about the disruptive potential of technology, Zume Pizza was often cited as the preview. Robots made its pizzas, and an oven-packed truck used a digital brain to cook the pies precisely for the moment of delivery, put together by still more cutting-edge equipment. While the industry was agog about smartphone apps, it was the flying car.

Now Zume is ready to expand, and like any concept that’s been prepped for rollout, the new Zume is sporting some tweaks, high- and low-tech.

The trucks, which originally packed 56 ovens, are now outfitted with just six, though that complement can cook 120 pizzas an hour, according to concept co-founder and co-CEO Alex Garden.

Robots are still integral to the prep process, says Garden, but he now describes the setup as co-botics, a human-robot combination involving more carbon life forms. “Robots are very, very good at boring repetitive work. That’s what people are the least good at it,” he explains. “But the robots are not very good about things like love of food, creative thinking and quality assurance.”

The robots figure into the prep part of the “constellations” that will serve each of Zume’s trade areas, which Garden and his team intend to expand from the current three to 26 by year’s end. Each market will feature a production facility that will prepare all the pies daily for that area, as determined by artificial intelligence.

The pizzas, prepped but uncooked, will be dispatched in a truck that’s in constant motion. The brains of the moving kitchen—what Garden calls the TDS, or truck display system—will direct the human “captain” of the vehicle. “It could say, ‘Drive the truck to this location,’” he says. “It could be ‘You need to get gas.’ It could be ‘Take this pizza out of this oven.’”

At peak times, a fleet of scooters and cars will also transport pies, though the cooking will still take place on the trucks.

Zume will offer packaged beverages while it works on a fountain system, according to Garden, who declined to divulge details.

Each of the constellations will be run by Zume Pizza; the concept has no plans to franchise or enter into joint ventures at this time, says Garden.

But it does intend to license the technology that serves as a foundation, working in concert with the supplier of the truck equipment, Welbilt, a longtime industry vendor.

Garden explains that Zume will remain the brand offering pizza cooked en route. But operators with brick-and-mortar stores will be able to have Zume and Welbilt develop what amounts to a mobile delivery kitchen attuned to their product, be it chicken or pierogies.

The support apparatus is proprietary, developed specifically for Zume, but applicable to other cook times and prep requirements, Garden continues.

“When we started the company two-and-a-half years ago, we needed equipment that could operate on the move. No one did it, so we had to go into the appliance business,” he says.

It was a long slog, contrary to the industry’s initial perception of Zume. People thought it was a quick process, an easy marriage of food and technology. “It took us about eight months to build a system that could actually get a pizza to a customer,” he says. “Some of our assumptions were right,” but others were way off. Months were spent turning the model upside down.

In addition to the technical challenges, there were the usual difficulties of preparing a concept for scale—developing recipes, selecting ingredients, engineering a supply chain, putting quality assurance and food safety programs in place. “Everyone who has entered the food business has assumed it’s getting one trick right and then expanding,” comments Garden, a newcomer to the business when he launched Zume. That assumption doesn’t begin to tell the story.

Nor, he insists can technology be that one trick. The main strengths of Zume, he asserts, are its product: A great-tasting pizza a la minute, using top-notch ingredients and sporting half the cholesterol, calories and fat. He contends Zume’s is “the best ordering experience in the industry, hands-down,” and that it offers unique delivery speed because of the cook-onboard capability.

But customers should be oblivious to the technology, Garden contends.

He acknowledges one key advantage, particularly of the robots incorporated into the concept: “It allows us to pay a decent minimum wage. We start people at $15 an hour, and we pay for medical, dental and vision benefits. When they hit a certain threshold, they qualify for equity.”

Much has been written about Zume’s financial backing, but Garden says there’s considerable hype to the speculation of how much has been raised. Most of the tech companies with which he dealt in trying to launch to company can boast of considerably more startup capital, he says.

Garden declined to give a figure, but an SEC filing last fall indicates the fledging concern has raised $48 million of the $50 million it’s set as a target.

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