LAS VEGAS — Tech world, meet pizza robot.
Seattle startup Picnic and its pizza-making machine just arrived at CES, the big consumer tech show that attracts nearly 200,000 people from across the globe.
Not only is Picnic able to show off its technology to thousands of geeks this week, but the company is also serving up actual pizza made by its automated food preparation device.
.@PicnicNews' pizza-making robot arrived at #ces and will start making pizzas for hungry attendees tomorrow. We just got a sneak peek with the Seattle startup — stay tuned for more! pic.twitter.com/LSsHxnCw58
— Taylor Soper (@Taylor_Soper) January 6, 2020
GeekWire got a behind-the-scenes look on Monday before the show officially opens to the public Tuesday.
“We are really excited about the opportunity to have a much bigger audience,” Picnic CEO Clayton Wood said as he gave us a tour of the CES booth.
Picnic is teaming with event hospitality company Centerplate, which provides food for events at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Centerplate has already used Picnic tech during a pilot program at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park baseball stadium.
GeekWire previously reported about Picnic, taking its tech for a spin and taste test at the company’s Seattle headquarters during its launch this past October.
In Las Vegas we got another close-up look at the machine, which is made up of a series of modular components that can be customized for each restaurant.
The internet-connected device itself looks rather unassuming but packs a ton of technology inside. There is a vision system that reads the size and shape of dough — which is formed by human hands — and can make adjustments if the pie is slightly off-center.
The dough then moves on a conveyor belt as sauce, cheese, fresh-sliced pepperoni and other topping choices are automatically dropped.
A typical machine inside a kitchen is placed adjacent to an oven, so the pies automatically go into cooking mode. But with its CES set-up, Picnic will have Centerplate employees move the pie manually in and out of the oven.
Picnic’s platform can churn out up to 300 12-inch customized pizzas per hour.
“A great pizza is the quality of the ingredients and the right proportions,” Wood said. “We can make the exact recipe as designed by the chef.
“Low-trained workers, especially in food service where there is huge turnover, tend to make pizza very inconsistently,” he added. “We can make the same pizza over and over again, with fresh ingredients that the chef chooses.”
Wood said an automation company like Picnic isn’t taking away jobs. He cited a food service industry labor shortage and said customers so far like the machine. There’s also a rise in delivery and carry-out meals driven by online orders and operators are struggling to keep up, he said.
“It’s easier than making pizza and they can be much more productive,” said Wood, a startup veteran who joined the company in 2018.
Eric Jackson, a Centerplate employee who will help serve pizzas this week, said he sees both sides of the job displacement debate when it comes to Picnic’s machine.
“I see the positives,” he told GeekWire. “A place like this can really benefit from it. The sheer volume it puts out is amazing.”
But Jackson also realizes potential downsides.
“The guy that can’t get work anywhere else but Domino’s Pizza is probably going to be out of a job if this technology gets popular,” he said.
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.
Pizza is just the start for Picnic, which has been garnering worldwide attention and even made an appearance on James Corden’s Late Late Show.
“This is the beginning of a food assembly platform,” Wood said. “We can make any food that gets assembled — sandwiches, salads, bowls, tacos.”
Picnic raised a $5 million seed round in November led by Creative Ventures, with returning investors Flying Fish Partners and Vulcan Capital.
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.
Zume is reportedly laying off 80 percent of its staff and closing its Seattle engineering office, Business Insider reported Monday. What does that mean for Picnic, which has raised far less but operates a similar model?
Seattle angel investor Kirby Winfield posed the question: is it a “fast follower opportunity to get it right and win big,” or proof that the market is not there? Wood responded:
Oh there is a market….???? https://t.co/JFcVTjUDST
— Clayton Wood (@cdub) January 7, 2020
We followed up with Wood, and he said: “Totally different companies in totally different markets.”
If you’re at CES and want to try out Picnic’s pizza this week, the company is at the South Hall, booth No. 21667.