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Jay-Z Puts Cheddar Into LA's Pizza-Making Robot
Photo by Tamas Pap on Unsplash

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Rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z has picked up yet another local investment. (As you’ll recall, he’s not a businessman but a business, man, so this makes some sense.) His latest find is mobile automated pizza delivery startup Stellar Pizza, a “restaurant on wheels” that can fully prepare a pizza in five minutes and churn out around 420 total pies per day. Hova led Stellar’s latest $16.5 million funding round through his company, Marcy Venture Partners (MVP).

If you’re thinking this is some old-school pizza truck with a robot arm installed as a gimmick or what have you, think again. Stellar comes from former SpaceX engineers Benson Tsai, Brian Langone, and James Wahawisan, who worked with a team of around 20 fellow designers for two years on the project (along with a culinary director and expert dough consultant, of course).

It sounds unconventional, but a pizza machine actually presented a lot of opportunities for automation. As a “closed loop,” the technology is relatively self-contained and a reliably repeatable process. Matthew Kang of Eater, who has seen a demo, describes the pizza-making as something of an assembly line, more akin to a Rube Goldberg contraption than an actual free-standing pizza-making robot.

The process begins when a crane grabs a ball of dough and places it onto a conveyor belt, which then begins pressing and kneading it to form a pizza shape. Similar technology is also used at more conventional human-staffed pizza chains, such as Blaze Pizza. Sauce, cheese, and toppings are then added by a series of arms, with a particular focus on America’s favorite pizza topping, pepperoni: The machine holds 19 full pepperoni sausages when fully stocked, and uses a horizontal guillotine-type device to slice them directly on top of the pizzas themselves. (Other more easy-to-place toppings flow through simple tubes.) The completed pies are then baked in one of four ovens, stacked into a tower at the end of the device, and output for a human worker to slice and place into a box for serving.

As concerns about a labor shortage continue to mount, innovative kitchen re-designs involving automation are spreading to restaurants and food service companies across all cuisines and niches. But with its relative simplicity and runaway popularity, pizza is proving a particularly attractive market for founders and designers. Americans consume around 3 billion pizzas a year, at a cost of around $46 billion annually, so it’s obvious why companies like Stellar would want to grab a slice of this market.

Still, Stellar isn’t the only player in the automated pizza game. The Bay Area’s Basil Street designs 22 square-feet automated pizza kitchens, which are physically modeled on conventional brick ovens; the company has tested five units so far in California, Texas, North Carolina and Nevada. El Segundo-based Piestro makes pizza vending machines in which the pies are assembled and cooked automatically. Earlier this summer, the company teamed up with delivery robot designers Serve for a totally contactless end-to-end robotic pizza delivery system. That’s right, a Serve robot can deliver up to four Piestro pizzas that have never been besmirched by human hands.

Though the pizza-making process itself has been deconstructed and reimagined by the ground up – with machines capable of outputting a fresh pie faster than even the quickest Domino's delivery driver – the real deciding factor on a lot of automated food companies may end up being intangibles like flavor and presentation. Silicon Valley’s automated pizzeria Zume famouly took a $375 million investment from Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, betting that pizza-bots could prep and deliver better pies at a faster clip than human workers. But the company struggled to create a worthy and compelling finished product. (Zume pizzas faced a number of complaints, from not enough sauce on the pie to holes in the pizzas themselves.)

Which is to say, a “normal”—but not exactly mind-blowing pizza—may be good enough considering the convenience and the relatively cheap price point; a cheese pizza from Stellar only runs $7, and up to $10 for a fully-loaded pie. But if automation is going to move beyond a fun gimmick and into a true food revolution, you’ve got to hope that companies find a way to bring exciting flavors and pizza experiences to the table, rather than just lower costs and quicker-than-expected prep times. — Lon Harris

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What We’re Reading...

- Fabric, which creates augmented reality experiences around live events, raised $4 million in a new funding round led by Sapir Venture Partners.

- Online influencer and “Real Housewives” star Bethenny Frankel filed suit in New York against TikTok on Thursday, claiming the platform has failed to crack down on scam ads using her likeness.

- Medical tech company SpineX announced the results of its first study in children with cerebral palsy, and reported improvements following non-surgical treatments with its SCiP device.


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