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Picnic’s robot delivers freshly sliced pepperoni onto a pizza via a conveyer belt. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

After three years of quietly toiling away on a robotic food system, Seattle startup Picnic has emerged from stealth mode with a system that assembles custom pizzas with little human intervention.

Picnic — previously known as Otto Robotics and Vivid Robotics — is the latest entrant in a cohort of startups and industry giants trying to find ways to automate restaurant kitchens in the face of slim margins and labor shortages. And its journey here wasn’t easy.

Picnic CEO Clayton Wood. (Picnic Photo)

“Food is hard. It’s highly variable,” said Picnic CEO Clayton Wood. “We learned a lot about food science in the process of developing the system.”

Picnic invited me down to their headquarters in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood last week for a chance to sling pies with their secretive pizza robot.

Walking up to the system, I was taken aback at how unassuming it looked. Picnic’s platform had none of the industrial machismo of a Vulcan range. Instead, it looked like a white, kitchen-sized iPhone.

Despite the simple exterior, the component parts were mesmerizing — from the sauce spitting out of a nozzle to the waterfall of diced cheese and individually sliced pepperoni.

Picnic’s platform assembles up to 300 12-inch pizzas per hour, far faster than most restaurants would be able to make the dough, bake and serve the pizzas. That speed comes in handy in places where large numbers of orders come in during a rush, such as at a stadium or in large cafeterias. It’s also compact enough that it could theoretically be installed in a food truck.

Machines have been making frozen pizzas for years, but Picnic’s robot differs in a few respects. It’s small enough to fit in most restaurant kitchens, the recipes can be easily tweaked to suit the whims of the restaurants, and — most importantly — the ingredients are fresh.

There are also a few details that may save Picnic’s pizzas from tasting as if a robot made them. For starters, the dough preparation, sauce making and baking — the real art of pizza — is left in the capable, five-fingered hands of people. The robot is also highly customizable, comprised of a series of modules that dole out whatever toppings you want in whichever order you choose.

Once an order for a pizza has been made, it enters a digital queue in the platform, which starts making the pie as soon as the dough is put in place. The robot has a vision system that allows it to make adjustments if the pie is slightly off-center. It’s also hooked up to the internet and sends data back to Picnic so the system can learn from mistakes.

The finished product. (GeekWire Photo)

Picnic’s business model is essentially pizza-as-a-service. Restaurant owners pay a regular fee in return for the system and ongoing maintenance as well as software and hardware updates. The startup has launched at Centerplate, a caterer in the Seattle Mariners’ T-Mobile Park baseball stadium, as well as Zaucer, a restaurant in Redmond, Wash.

Related: Hear from food tech experts on the Future of Food panel at the GeekWire Summit, Oct. 7-9 in Seattle

“People are getting more accustomed to the idea of not owning technology because they perceive it to be something that changes quickly. They don’t want to buy a major investment and have it be obsolete in three years,” said Wood. Picnic’s pricing plans, which depend on the volume of pizza being made, are designed to be at or below the labor and waste-related costs that companies can avoid with the system.

The startup has changed names twice since it first came onto GeekWire’s radar. Picnic started as Otto Robotics, which caused some confusion with the other Otto, a self-driving car startup, and it later went by Vivid Robotics.

Picnic has also changed CEOs. It was founded and led by Garett Ochs, a mechanical engineer who left a job at Oculus VR to start what would later become Picnic. Ochs resigned last year, and Wood took over the top job.

Wood got his start at Honeywell in the late 90s before taking on several leadership stints at startups including Naverus, WebJunction, Planetary Power, and IUNU. He also is a former CEO at Synapse Product Development.

Draper Associates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital funded the company’s seed round. Wood declined to discuss Picnic’s more recent funding or investors. The company has raised $8.77 million to date, according to PitchBook data.

GeekWire reporter James Thorne readies the dough for a pizza to be made by Picnic’s robot. (Kyu Han / 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.

The good news for Picnic is that there may be room for several such companies in America, where people spend $46 billion annually at pizza restaurants. Down the line, the startup wants to use the same system to assemble salads, bowls and sandwiches.

“The potential for Picnic’s technology is broad-reaching for the pizza and other food industries,” said Kati Fritz-Jung, a former Little Caesars executive who serves as an advisor to Picnic. “Innovations like this will change the way we approach customer service, product quality, operational costs and overall consumer satisfaction.”

Picnic’s robotic pizza system is made up of a series of modular components that can be customized for each restaurant. (Picnic Photo)

I have no pride to protect when it comes to my own pizza-making ability, but watching Picnic’s various modules layer cheese and slice fresh pepperoni makes me feel a pang of sympathy for Garry Kasparov, the first world chess champion to lose to a computer in a tournament. Picnic’s robot is faster and more capable than any entry-level food service employee could ever hope to be.

Maybe that’s a good thing, since food service workers can be hard to come by. More than a third of restaurant owners are having trouble filling jobs, especially in the kitchen, according to the National Restaurant Association. And more than 80 percent of workers will change jobs each year, requiring employers to constantly train recruits. Increasing labor costs are also affecting the bottom line for restaurant owners.

“Picnic could help our existing staff work more efficiently, allowing them to do double or triple their customer service load without negatively impacting workflow,” said Zaucer co-founder Aaron Roberts. “Our employees feel it’s going to help them through the rough spots.”

My only job was to place the dough at one end and transfer it to an oven at the other. Even still, I fell behind after only three pies. The experience felt like that episode of I Love Lucy with Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory.

In just a few minutes, we had several hot pizzas ready to eat. We were using frozen dough and an electric oven for the demonstration, so my expectations were low. And while the pizzas I made weren’t memorable, I couldn’t fault the machine: the robot delivered fresh-tasting and meticulously-arranged toppings.

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