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Picnic’s robot assembles pizza at a rate of 300 per hour. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

Seattle startup Picnic, which makes robots for the restaurant industry, raised $5 million in a seed round led by Creative Ventures with returning investors Flying Fish Partners and Vulcan Capital.

The new cash will be used to design the next iteration of Picnic’s pizza robot as well as to pursue additional pilots. Centerplate, a caterer at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, was the first to test the pizza system.

The small startup went viral last month after it debuted a pizza-assembling robot that is capable of producing 300 pizzas per hour. Picnic’s system even made an appearance on James Corden’s Late Late Show.

“We’ve had interest from all over the world, all different kinds of customers. It’s very clear that we’ve got a capability that people are very interested in and one that doesn’t exist out in the market at the moment,” said Picnic CEO Clayton Wood.

 

Lead investor Creative Ventures backs other food-related startups including smart shopping cart startup Caper and Dishcraft Robotics, which sells a dishwashing service to restaurants that is powered by robotics. The San Francisco-based venture capital firm funds companies that are using tech to tackle labor productivity, climate change, and demographic challenges.

“Picnic squarely addresses a pressing challenge in our modern economy from labor shortages across most of the developed (and developing) world. Food services is one of the sectors at the heart of the crunch with rising labor costs, more demand for workers, yet fewer workers taking jobs in the sector,” said James Wang, general partner at Creative Ventures, in an email.

Picnic CEO Clayton Wood. (Picnic Photo)

Robotic chefs have yet to go mainstream, but Little Caesar’s has a patent for a pizza-making robot. And Domino’s is automating many of its processes, including a pilot for driverless pizza delivery and an experimental drone delivery system. San Francisco-based Zume has raised $445 million with backing from SoftBank to create a pizza robot system and other robotics infrastructure for restaurants.

To help refine its hardware, Picnic hired Kennard Nielsen as vice president of engineering. Nielsen previously worked on Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Nike’s FuelBand, and the first Xbox Kinect for Microsoft. “People say hardware is hard. And [Nielsen] is a guy who knows how to deliver hardware,” said Wood.

Picnic also hired vice president of product Mike McLaughlin, who brings prior food industry experience through his work with Starbucks, Concordia Coffee Systems and Bunn, which makes commercial beverage machines.

Designing a pizza-making robot for regular restaurant kitchens is challenging. The system has to be small, reliable, affordable and adaptable. One selling point of Picnic’s robot is that it can be preconfigured to make just about any recipe.

Not everyone was happy with Picnic’s pizza robot. Twitter users sounded off on the system and pizza, deriding it as unappetizing, messy and responsible for eliminating human jobs. (I ate a pizza assembled by Picnic’s robot and thought it tasted like a pizza from a baseball stadium — tasty and filling, but not gourmet. The crust was pre-frozen and it was baked in an electric oven, so my expectations were low.)

Picnic’s pizza robot is ideal for high-volume settings like ballparks and cafeterias, but the machine could be used in higher-end restaurants too. (Picnic Photo)

Wood defended his companies against the critics, saying that the company has since demonstrated that its robot can make upscale pizzas with hand-tossed crust and fancier ingredients. Since the system merely assembles toppings, a restaurant could use any kind of crust and baking method it wants.

“The Centerplate pizza is a great pizza. We really didn’t think about people judging the system by looking at the pizza, but they sure did,” said Wood.

In addition to sports stadiums, Picnic is looking to sell to venues like corporate campuses, cruise lines and hospital cafeterias. Wood said the next design of its pizza robot could be ready for production following a pilot phase.

Another Seattle startup, Souszen, recently came out of stealth mode and revealed its plans to automate the commercial kitchen.

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