It's been said that when pizza is good, it's really good. And when it's bad ... it's still pretty good.

Zume Pizza co-founder Julia Collins thinks pretty good pizza is pretty unacceptable. So Zume attacked the problem of mediocre pies with a distinctly Silicon Valley spin: robot chefs. Beginning Thursday, Zume will also roll out app-connected vans that cook the pizza en route to your door.

It all started when Collins, a Harvard-educated San Francisco native who spent years working for Danny Meyer at Shake Shack and then co-founded a Mexican-barbecue business in New York City, met former Xbox exec Alex Garden. Garden told her about his idea to automate the food-making process--and to have it cook while the food was being delivered.

"I thought, I'm either going to watch the food industry get disrupted by people like Alex," Collins says, "or I'm going to join him."

Join him she did. Last September, Collins packed up her life in New York City and moved to Silicon Valley. Together she and Garden co-founded Zume, a food startup that has automated much of its pizza-making process with robots. This latest innovation will bring that automation to the delivery process, using vans equipped with 56 ovens loaded with unbaked pizzas.

Once a customer chooses a topping combination within an app and places an order, an algorithm tells the driver which route to take, and the pies start cooking a few minutes before the estimated arrival. The company delivers throughout the Valley, largely to a tech- and cheese-hungry demographic interested in testing out a geeky new innovation.

But Collins says it's not just a marketing ploy, nor a way to avoid paying employees. The money that's saved on labor wages, she says, is used to buy better, fresher ingredients for the pizzas, which Collins believes will give Zume staying power even once the novelty of the technology wears off.

A slice of the pie

According to market research firm Ibis World, pizza restaurants comprise a $40 billion market, about 40 percent of which belongs to the big four: Dominos, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar, and Papa John's. Those companies provide cheap eats that satisfy many a 1 a.m. craving--but they're not exactly offering chef-quality ingredients.

That's where Collins sees an opening for Zume to burst in. The startup's marinara sauce, for example, comes from single source, organic, locally produced dry farm tomatoes. "Nobody else can afford to do that," Collins says, adding that "a pizza's never going to be better than its ingredients." The better ingredients and fewer preservatives also make the pizza better for the body: A slice with pepperoni comes in at an average of 178 calories, compared to 320 for the major franchises.

At the startup's Mountain View headquarters, dough is kneaded by humans, shaped by a robot, then placed on a conveyer belt. One robot applies sauce, then another spreads it. Humans then add cheese and any desired toppings, and another robot carefully scoops the pizza up and places it in an 850-degree oven.

Since its launch in April, Zume has loaded its pizzas into a traditional delivery car. Using robots in the preparation process helped Zume get to an average delivery time of 20 minutes, compared to 45 for some of the industry's biggest players.

But while fresher ingredients helped pizza quality, they didn't solve for the loss of crispiness that comes when pizza is transported. That's where Garden's original vision of pizza cooked en route came into play. These first few months have let Zume establish itself in the local market--and secure the necessary approvals from the Board of Health--before it unleashes its cooked-en-route pizza on the streets in early October.

Each Zume van has two stacks of 28 miniature ovens, each loaded with an unbaked pizza made back at the headquarters. Any time a customer places an order, his location is added to the driver's electronically mapped route. (If a customer wants a combination that's not already in the van, he can wait a few extra minutes for a pizza that originates back at the headquarters--but the app will inform him of that and let him decide which pizza to go with.) The pizza starts cooking when the van is about four minutes away and is ejected into a box when finished; the driver then places it under an eight-way, self-cleaning slicer and brings it to the customer's door. All in all, Collins says the time from order to delivery is between five and 15 minutes.

Zume isn't the only company tinkering with removing humans from the process of delivering food or packages. British robot maker Starship Enterprises recently partnered with several food delivery companies throughout Europe and in Washington, D.C., to transport orders via a small self-driving bot that can only be unlocked by the recipient. And with self-driving cars now a reality, why not fully automate the pizza delivery process start to finish?

For one, that would require a desire to replace even more humans with machines, which Collins doesn't seem to have. "Zume will always be a humans-collaborating-with-robots situation," she says. She also maintains that full automation isn't necessary for the company's success, since its margins are strong even without it.

But she does acknowledge that it would be fairly simple to work into Zume's work flow, should the company ever change it's mind. "Our end-to-end process," she says, "has absolutely been built to accommodate automation at other steps."

Collins says that Zume completed a seed round just shy of $10 million and is looking for investors for an A round later this year, the goal of which will be to secure enough funds to build five more locations in the Bay Area. For now, it has the perfect location to bring pizza to young, tech professionals--its location is down the road from Google's main campus.

But that doesn't let Collins lose sight of the company's vision. "At the end of the day we're a food company," she says, "and we're using technology to deliver better food."

Published on: Sep 29, 2016