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These Two Silicon Valley Pizza Places Show The Challenges Posed By Automation And Inequality

Comparing two nearby restaurants–a chain founded in 1959 and a new, robot-made pizza company–illustrates the complex issues facing 21st-century businesses.

In 1959, William Larson sold his parents’ furniture for a down payment on some real estate. He drew up a back-of-a-napkin blueprint, his father built some redwood tables, and a few months later the first Round Table Pizza opened its doors in Menlo Park, California, with an confrontational motto, “The Last Honest Pizza.”

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In 2015, a few miles down the road from the original Round Table, Julia Collins wanted to start a food company of her own. Together with her cofounder Alex Garden, a serial entrepreneur with a background in industrial robotics, she raised a round of venture capital to open Zume Pizza, a pizza shop unlike the world had ever seen.

[Photo: Simone Stolzoff]
If you ask Larson’s son Bob–who has run store number one since his father died in 2006–what differentiates Round Table, his answer is simple: a human touch. “We still sheet our own dough,” he’d say. “There isn’t another place that does that with the volume that we do.” In 1959, they would unhinge the restaurant’s front door to double as a rolling table. Now the shop has a 700-square-foot basement where an employee rolls dough for seven hours a day.

If you ask Collins what differentiates Zume, she would say it’s their proprietary technology. The first is their patented “Cooking en Route” system. In the morning, a machine learning algorithm takes into account historical data, weather, and zeitgeisty events like a Game of Thrones premiere to predict customer demand for the day. After prep, the pizzas are partially baked at Zume’s brick-and-mortar shop in Mountain View and then transported to a network of mobile food trucks across Silicon Valley. When a customer places an order through the Zume app, software determines the most efficient truck to activate, and the pizzas finish cooking in mobile ovens on the way to the customer’s home.

Zume’s other claim to fame is their pizzaiolos: Pepe, Giorgio, Marta, Bruno, and Vincenzo, a team of anthropomorphized robots that work alongside prep cooks to roll out the dough, sauce, and bake the pizzas at Zume HQ. The Zume kitchen can churn out 372 pizzas per hour.

Zume and Round Table might seem like bookends that flank the economy-wide conversation on automation: the family owned business that’s still the go-to spot for the local Little League team’s postseason party vs. the dystopian pizza shop, where cooking as an act of love goes to die. But that simplistic logic leaves out the nuance of what happens before industries reach full automation. The famed robocalypse will not come in the form of machines knocking on doors with pink slips. In the interim, businesses like Larson’s will need to figure out how machines and humans might be able to work together. And Zume, though perhaps horrifying to some at first glance, lends insight into how that near-term future might look.

[Photos: Simone Stolzoff]

A Slice of Dystopia?

From a labor perspective, there’s little distinction between displacing a taxi driver or a pizza prep cook. Economists classify both jobs as routine physical labor, which researchers from Oxford and Yale believe is a category of work that will likely be fully automated in the 2020s.

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Collins makes it very clear that she is not trying to fully automate the occupation of being a chef. “We’re only talking about automating the tasks that are boring, unsafe, or repetitive like sticking your hand in a 800 degree oven or rolling out dough 100 times a day,” she says. Automation has clear benefits for the humans Zume does employ.

[Photos: Simone Stolzoff]
For most restaurants, the three major costs are ingredients, labor, and rent. Zume, on the other hand, has only one brick-and-mortar location and a team of robots that don’t require a salary, so Collins can afford to pass some of those savings onto her employees. Even part-time Zume employees get full health benefits, equity ownership in the company, and tuition reimbursement to develop professionally.

On the other hand, most work at pizza delivery spots is part-time and doesn’t come with many opportunities for career development. The original Round Table tries to be an exception. Larson takes pride in the fact that he pays his workers above minimum wage and promotes all store managers internally. Though, unlike Zume, Round Table isn’t able to offer its employees benefits.

One Zume employee, Geoffrey Gallagher, started as a delivery driver in 2015. On Zume’s dime, he started studying data science online, and now runs Zume’s customer support and customer insights organization. “We have pizza prep cooks that are learning programming and delivery guys that are learning data science,” says Collins.

Larson’s biggest concern is finding workers. Round Table has 477 franchises across the western United States, but their flagship store in Menlo Park shares its home with Facebook, Intuit, and some of the most valuable venture capital firms in the world. The cost of living is 330% higher than the United States average and the median single home value is over $2 million.

“I’ve been working here since I was 12,” says Larson, “and I’ve seen the gentrification firsthand. I’ve seen my [worker’s] families get pushed out. I’ve had employees who are students that have had to quit in the middle of school year because they had to move to Stockton.”

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In Santa Clara county, most restaurant and service workers simply can’t afford to live close to work, which has created an enormous worker shortage. Facebook contract workers are sleeping in their cars and real estate developers are scrambling to staff construction workers for their projects. The exorbitant cost of living and the $15 minimum wage threaten small business owners like Larson’s ability to find and retain talent.

“If you ask any restaurant owner in the area, their biggest concern is staffing” says Larson.

[Photos: Simone Stolzoff]

Pie in the Sky

Last October, Zume raised $48 million dollars in Series B funding with the explicit goal of delivering robot pizza to the entire Bay Area by the end of 2018. It’s easy to imagine a relatively near-term future where all the humans save for the technologists become obsolete from Zume’s operation. For monotonous tasks like rolling out dough and spreading sauce, robots are simply better laborers.

Though the phrase “robots are taking our jobs” is thrown around flippantly these days, it’s important to examine the nature of work they are replacing. The work of a prep cook at Round Table is already robotic in nature. And in many ways–for a franchise with over 400 stores that need to churn out hundreds of pizzas a day–the automation of making pizza began before Zume applied for their first patent.

A knee-jerk reaction might be to villainize Zume for replacing jobs that give workers paychecks, but Zume is ahead of the curve in answering perhaps the most pressing labor question of the next few decades: Who will take responsibility for re-skilling our workforce for an age of mass automation?

“A person who was employed as a pizza prep cook in the past, who was spending 60% of his day putting a pizza in and out of an oven, now has 60% of his day to do quality control or recipe development,” says Collins.

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Of course, robots aren’t the first wave of automation in pizza making. Even Larson recalls switching from traditional deck ovens to a triple-belt conveyor oven at his “honest” pizza shop.

“I did it for volume,” he says. “I’m not sure if something was lost along the way.”


Simone Stolzoff is a Bay Area-based journalist, covering automation, ethics, and the attention economy. You can follow him on Twitter