Meet Picnic: Automating Pizza Preparation for Speed, Accuracy

Centerplate Executive Chef Taylor Park stands in front of Picnic's installed pizza-making system, in the kitchen at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park. Image: Picnic

October 01, 2019      

Many robotics and automation companies have focused on food preparation in recent years, especially when it comes to one of Americans’ favorite food – pizza. Companies like Zume Pizza, EKIM are automating pizza production, and franchises like Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, and Little Caesar’s are experimenting with robotics and self-driving delivery vehicles or robots. Today, another automation company that’s starting with pizza preparation is joining the mix – Seattle-based Picnic.

The company unveiled its intelligent end-to-end automated assembly platform designed for the food service and hospitality industries. The small footprint, freestanding system integrates Picnic’s patents on modular, configurable equipment with software, cloud and deep learning technology. The initial focus for Picnic will be on the production of high-volume, customizable pizzas, at a rate of up to 180 18-inch pizzas or 300 12-inch pizzas per hour.

Picnic announced two of its first customers – Centerplate, which serves more than 115 million guests at more than 200 sports, entertainment, and convention venues, and Washington-based Zaucer Pizza. Centerplate plans to apply the technology at T-Mobile Park, home of the Seattle Mariners baseball team. The company will also present a live presentation of its system at the 2019 Smart Kitchen Summit, to be held Oct. 7-8 in Seattle.

Robotics Business Review spoke with the company’s CEO, Clayton Wood, about the system and its goals to help create more consistent pizza.

Complex pizza preparation

“Pizza is the most popular food that has the most complex assembly process,” said Wood. “It’s one of those foods that it’s really good if you have good ingredients and it’s hot and fresh, but it’s not as good if the pizza has to be made ahead of time because you don’t have enough people to meet your rush hour. It’s not as good if you can’t use high-quality ingredients or if you use the wrong proportions.”

picnic ceo Clayton Wood

Clayton Wood, Picnic CEO

Another issue is the consistency and accuracy in which pizza is prepared before it goes into the oven. “What happens a lot of times in a pizza restaurant is they have a hard time keeping trained workers who know how to comply with the recipe,” said Wood. “People tend to make the pizza they want to make instead of the recipe, so they put too much of this or that on it. Especially cheese – cheese is the most expensive ingredient, so there’s a lot of food waste. The recipe doesn’t come out right, the quality and the consistency suffers.”

Wood said the system was designed with a small footprint in order to be appealing to smaller pizza shops, not just large franchises or catering operations. Since many pizza restaurants have different types of ovens, the company didn’t create a system that came with its own oven, but rather will work with restaurants who want to automate the cooking process as well.

“Our product right now is just the assembly process,” said Wood. “What we know about our customers is they have all different kinds of ovens – wood-fired, conveyor ovens, deck ovens. We are in discussions with some customers about bridging to an oven – sometimes they have a double-decker or a triple-decker oven that has multiple lanes. We’re looking into making automation that will make that connection and route the pizzas into whichever lane it needs to go, if the customer wants that.”

Another feature aimed to appeal to the small mom-and-pop pizza shop is the company’s robotics as a service business model. Picnic said it will deliver, install and maintain the system, and provide platform and software updates for a monthly fee with no money upfront. For many independent restaurant operators or franchisees, they don’t have the capital to spend on major equipment, and are reluctant to spend money on a large machine they’ve never seen before, Wood said.

“We believe we can set a fee at a place where it is comparable or below the amount that they’ll save in labor, food waste, consistency and the growth of their customers because they’re putting out a better product,” said Wood. “Another reason [for doing Raas] is that this is a new product and we’re very rapidly improving it, and we want to give the customers the benefit of those upgrades. Not only will we do the maintenance and repair, we will also be upgrading it over the course of the life of the contract. So [customers] will always have the latest application software.”

The size of Picnic’s system can also be used to support ghost kitchen (sometimes called dark kitchen or cloud kitchen) operations, one of the newest trends in restaurants where there’s no dining room – food is prepared solely for delivery or carry out. “Carry out is growing at 300% of the speed of dine-in, and a lot of restaurants are struggling to cope with the transition to serve the delivery market,” said Wood. “We think our system is a way to help restaurants cope with that, to add capacity to their kitchens without remodeling the kitchen or adding a whole bunch of staff.”

Kurt Dammeier, founder of Sugar Mountain, a national food company that includes food brands and restaurants such as Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, The Butcher’s Table and Mishima Reserve, said Picnic’s qualities will attract attention and eventually be applied across several food segments. “Food service operators are now better equipped to easily offer economical and tailored food to their customers, as well as, improve workflow, scheduling and kitchen conditions for employees,” said Dammeier. “I have witnessed Picnic’s system in action. No other food preparation or automation system compares. I can imagine countless types of dishes being produced and food service operators, across all segments, putting in their rush order to obtain Picnic’s platform. We are happy to see Picnic join the Food Revolution.”