"Once upon a time, pizza delivery took forever (okay, more like 45 minutes) because everything was done by hand."

That's the way the history of the pizza industry could read if startup company Zume has its way. The company, which is based in Mountain View in Silicon Valley, is introducing specialized vans with automated equipment that cook pies on the way to your desired delivery location, as The Economist reports.

How Zume's automation works

Back at Zume's headquarters, human workers prepare the dough for your pizza. Robots then shape the dough and apply and spread sauce. Then it's back to humans, who put on toppings. Zume initially used robots to pop the pies in the oven and delivered them in a regular car, but now, Zume puts prepared, uncooked pizzas into stacked ovens in new vans. As orders come in, Zume's system automatically adds them to the van driver's route. Pizzas are set to cook about four minutes before they get to you. The approach means that you have to stick to topping combos available in the van or wait for a new batch to roll out from headquarters, but regardless, your pie is delivered super fresh and hot.

Okay, so if it's just pizza, what's the big deal?

Food companies--particularly fast food chains like McDonald's--have been looking into increasing how much of their food gets prepared through automation and robots for a while, spurred by the increasing cost of labor. And businesses also have been toying with technology in delivery services. Drones, for example, experimentally have delivered food from Chipotle Mexican Grill and Domino's. But Zume appears to be the first company to combine the two elements, finishing the actual preparation of the food on the go.

Combined with the other automation Zume has in place at headquarters, the specialized vans mean that Zume is able to stay incredibly streamlined. That cuts costs for the company, which is taking the savings and reinvesting it in better-quality fare. They currently offer 20 choices, including some that are gluten free, partnering with local providers to ensure freshness of the ingredients. Julia Collins, Zume's cofounder, told CNN that the en route delivery means they don't have to add extra preservatives as well, as they don't sit in delivery cars the way they do at traditional pizza companies.

But it's not just the quality and convenience Zume provides that's capturing attention. Zume's automated method does offer benefits for the employees, more than half of whom are considered low-skilled, because some of Zume's savings goes to vision, dental and health insurance benefits. The combination of benefits plus a full-time gig is a huge deal, as many companies in the food industry--especially fast food companies--are cutting employee hours in a response to the expense associated with Obamacare. Workers also have higher safety, because the automation is taking care of the big repetitive tasks and letting employees skip the potentially dangerous step of getting the pies in and out of the hot ovens.

But not everyone can jump on Zume's bandwagon

Zume clearly has some good things going for it, and Collins said she thinks the company's technology can work with other types of foods aside from pizza. Many simple food preparation tasks already are automated in many restaurants, and it probably wouldn't be difficult to add a route system such as Zume's to those technologies. The problem is that pizza--even gourmet pizza--is actually a pretty simple cooking affair. Just pop it in the oven, wait a bit and you're all set. But let's consider something like the ever-popular burger. To automate that and still maintain freshness, you must accommodate both refrigeration and cooking needs, storage of condiments and toppings (which you can't add beforehand) and the actual assembly process. That quickly can eat up space in a physical blueprint--this burger machine from Momentum Machines, for example, measures at 24 square feet. (A small food truck is typically 14 feet long, although trucks can get as large as 34 feet.)

Logistics simply make it very difficult to produce certain fare safely in the confines of a van, let alone make those foods as part of a larger, more complex meal with a main entrée and sides. And as The Economist points out, scale can be hard to achieve because initial capital required is significant, competition is already tough and new scientific ways of reinventing foods to make automation work aren't necessarily going to be found without going through some foibles. Lastly, many areas have health code regulations that say you can't prep or store food on a truck, so companies might have to address that, too.

The Zume way or not, a transition is here

For certain food businesses, following in Zume's footsteps makes perfect sense and may even become a competitive necessity. But the technology and overall concept works best for chains that specialize in just one type of dish or variation-on-a-theme foods (like pizza). Companies that want to offer more varied meals or menu options might find that it's more practical not to mobilize the kitchen and to invest in delivery robots or drones instead. Either way, the innovations food businesses are developing mean delivery is going to be very different in the future. So forks up, everybody. No matter how you slice it, change is already cooking.

Published on: Dec 5, 2016