Robotics company Picnic seeks to better the situations of owners, workers, and consumers in the restaurant industry

The more features a robot has, the more threatening it becomes. An android with machine-gun arms that spits out ninja stars with unfailing accuracy will undoubtedly murder. A humanoid robot with sex appeal and no morals will undoubtedly ruin emotional well-beings. A robot with the ability to create a hundred pizzas an hour with customizable toppings will undoubtedly take jobs.

Picnic’s Pizza Station is a “straightforward modular assembly line with sauce, cheese, and fresh-sliced pepperoni. It’s the essential back-of-house pizza makeline.” It’s easy to train on, enabling restaurants with job vacancies to fill fewer positions. Instead of finding multiple workers willing to make an ungodly number of pizzas in a robotic fashion for little pay, with Picnic, they only need to find one person to hire as an operator of the machinery, and can theoretically pay them more.

In the first nine months of COVID, Domino’s and Papa John’s saw a combined revenue increase equivalent to 30 million more large cheese pizzas than the previous year. While restaurant sales and quick service saw a momentary decrease, frozen pizza maintained its rise, according to Statista. Delivery and carry-out had an obvious rise in appeal during the pandemic, but it’s an appeal with expected staying power beyond a COVID-free future. The demand for robots that make pizza is equal to, perhaps even greater than, the fear of them.

Homogeneity exists simultaneously as the basis of American life and its greatest perceived enemy. We live in constant terror of sameness—that our futures are all merging into a WALL-E-esque conglomerate of blob-like bodies motoring around in shopping carts that represent unending, mindless consumption. The American Dream is built on the hope of differentiating oneself as proven by monetary success, but those who have succeeded at it have mostly made the rest of us more alike. It’s because of Jeff Bezos’s Amazon that we all have the same silverware, and because of Steve Jobs’s Apple that we all operate with the same devices, that feed us the same advertisements, from which we order more of the same silverware from Bezos.

While automation is easily perceived as an avenue to homogeneity, it may also offer a way out of it. We’ve not yet faced decisions on mass-produced humanoid waitstaff, but rather contemplate the integration of supplementary robotics and automation in restaurants—ghost kitchens, QR code menus, delivery drones, and, of course, pizza-making robots. Such technologies may offer more opportunity and lower risks for independent businesses.

As we now know, the demand for pizza is on the incline. Yet, the increased demand comes at a time when restaurants are greatly understaffed. It is no secret that restaurant jobs are often grueling, despite low pay—and for many, the pandemic was reason enough to quit. During the Great Resignation, one third of hospitality workers left the industry forever. The National Restaurant Association found that 11% have gone back to school or to a training program to launch a new career. People still want pizza, but fewer people want to make and serve it.

“Automation gets a bad name because when people think about mass-produced food, they think about food that you buy in a box at a grocery store.”

Enter the Picnic Pizza Station. Pizza is a labor-intensive food to produce, says Picnic’s CEO, Clayton Wood, who, prior to working in the industry of pizza producing robots, led companies in fields such as aerospace and renewable energy. “When I first heard about it, I thought, Does the world need a pizza robot?” But in Wood’s three years at Picnic, he’s seen the exigency grow steadily. “The need was there before,” he explains. “It’s just become much more acute because of the catastrophic levels of change that have happened in food service over the last two years.”

The restaurant industry is notoriously risky. Even as businesses adapt to the pandemic and ease back into a sort of normalcy, many of them are still struggling, as they did long before COVID. “Consumers need to understand how their favorite restaurants are gone,” says Kristen Hawley, a San Francisco-based reporter specializing in the intersection between restaurants and technology. “Restaurants have been asking for aid that was promised and rescinded. I’ve been in a restaurant maybe twice [since the pandemic], and it’s my job,” Hawley explains. “Does it still feel weird? It does, but it’s been two years of weirdness, so it’s normalized in its own way.”

COVID allowed for accelerated integration of new technology for restaurants without the risk of consumer upset. Our favorite fast food chains have replaced people taking orders with touch screens, and many restaurants have adopted online ordering and payment systems for in-person diners. It no longer feels strange to add a burger and fries to your cart from a table, then have them served by a waitress you haven’t yet interacted with.

Picnic has seen its technologies integrated into restaurants, convenience and grocery stores, university and corporate campuses, casinos, hotels, cruise lines, sports venues, catering groups, healthcare cafeterias, small kiosks, ghost kitchen operators, mobile food operations, food trucks, delivery, and military sites.

“Automation gets a bad name because when people think about mass-produced food, they think about food that you buy in a box at a grocery store. If you think about automated pizza, people automatically think about frozen pizza. Our system is only assembling fresh ingredients. And so our system can produce the same pizza that any chef can make,” Wood claims. While the use of ‘same’ would likely leave any pizzeria chef aghast, his point is, in part, true. The machine allows for customization; it’s intended as a supplementary tool for the chef. The preparation of the dough, the time it’s proved, the types and amounts of ingredients and toppings used are all still left to the chef’s discretion. “We’re not in the food business. We’re not in the pizza business. The only thing we’re doing is assembling the pizza,” Wood explains.

This shows the potential to reap obvious benefits for owners of establishments who sell pizzas. The machines are more hygienic and less likely to produce errors than humans. The system can, perhaps, be better for employees, as it opens opportunities for less work and more equitable pay for staff.

A New York pizza chef may claim such a robot is blasphemy to their craft. They may be right—just as a Sicilian pizza chef may be right in saying American pizza is essentially automated as is. The majority of fast food and chain restaurants imply a sort of system that attempts to make chefs and cooks as close to robotic in their practices as possible. It’s all relative. “We’re already in a pretty corporatized food service market. There’s a lot of uniformity. In any town, you get the same brands, the same signs, the same stuff,” Wood explains.

A recently exacerbated problem many restaurants face is an inability to fulfill the market of delivery. Where once the mass capacity of a restaurant was the number of open seats at tables, delivery makes those seats limitless. One solution to this problem is ghost kitchens, which are kitchens purely functioning for delivery, allowing for increased kitchen capacity in strategically placed locations.

Restaurants, Hawley says, are increasingly becoming defined by one of two basic functionalities—the experiential or the convenient. Locations like this make sense for restaurants of convenience, in which technologies like Picnic’s make for smart implementation. Ghost kitchens make sense for restaurants of convenience.

“Our technology is a tool, and anyone who operates it can make their own recipe and produce food very economically, in high volume and with high quality. In some ways, that enables the little guy.”

“Domino’s was a ghost kitchen before there were ghost kitchens,” Wood says. For decades, Domino’s has functioned almost exclusively as a facility solely for production and delivery. What feels uneasy to consumers are ghost kitchens that function entirely behind the scenes because, Hawley explains, people that work in these spaces are essentially like factory workers. “They’re just pumping out stuff. In a way, it’s not the same food, it’s a new thing.” With the integration of robots, ghost kitchens can be made to be more equitable to their regular kitchen counterparts, at least for restaurants of convenience. Ghost kitchens are left ripe for abuse and exploitation as they don’t face the same regulations and monitoring as a restaurant’s kitchen. They face the same choices around using technology to make for better working conditions for their employees, or using it to fall into greater corporate greed.

A dystopian future of homogeneous, factory-made food is undoubtedly possible, maybe even likely, as resources dwindle at increasing rates. The integration of technology to supplement growing demands and decreasing supply and staff is inevitable. How that technology is integrated is still to be determined. While Picnic may not work for a slow food Italian restaurant, cooking with recipes carefully produced over generations for limited clientele, it makes perfect sense for a stadium that can now produce hundreds of pizzas quickly and freshly instead of heating pre-made frozen products.

While technologies like the Picnic Pizza Station provide ample opportunity for big corporations to pay their workers more to do less work, that assumes that either those running such corporations will have sudden moral awakenings or face increased legislative requirements (such as increased minimum wage). It seems the real opportunity the technology offers is for small business owners. Picnic’s pizza maker costs $3500 a month for its basic model, ‘The Essentials,’ which can produce up to a hundred pizzas per hour. For an aspiring restaurant owner hoping to make a play for a stake in the billion dollar restaurant industry, lower costs for reliable production is a game changer.

“Our technology is a tool, and anyone who operates it can make their own recipe and produce food very economically, in high volume and with high quality,” Wood insists. “In some ways, that enables the little guy. It also enables corporate players, but it’s not exclusively available to the corporate players.”