Minimum viable pizza: a story involving robots and grift

You ever heard of Zume? Not to be confused with Zune (the Microsoft iPod-killer). Nor to be confused with Zoom (unmute your mic please). Zume was a startup that made pizzas using robots. They're dead as of this month. Let's find out why. It involves robots - and pizza.

First some background. Pizza's origins can be traced to the 18th-century of Italy, as cheap street fare. Much like today. What isn't contentious is the first pizza place in the USA - which still exists. It's Lombardi's on 32 Spring St, Nolita, Manhattan, New York, New York 10012. It opened in 1905.

So as far as dishes go, pizza is relatively young and so hugely successful. This would make you think that there's no way to improve on the classic method of making a pizza in an oven - you knead the dough, you spread the sauce, you add the ingredients, and bake until crisp. Nobody is asking to "disrupt" the pizza market - are they? Well, don't let cheap interest rates and fools with venture capital tell you different. It's time to DISRUPT pizza! “Artificial intelligence", “machine learning", “highly intelligent automation", and “flexible robots" are terms you're going to associate with pizza from now on, I'm telling you.

But now onto Zume itself. Founded in 2015 by two white fellas. One of whom was the CEO of Zygna. Yes, the Farmville suckers. Already this is going to be a fucking failure. The other person was an accomplished restaurateur, Julia Collins. Well, I guess ideas have to start from somewhere.

Their pitch was twofold: They could use modified automotive robots to prepare the pizzas at their site. In addition, they could cook the pizzas on the way to the customer's home, so that when it got to your house, it was piping hot. Sounds simple! Perfect. Nothing can go wrong with this.

Well, about that. Firstly, an industrial robotic arm can cost anywhere from $25 000 to $400 000. Secondly, they are very good at doing rote, pre-programmed tasks. I will give you the word of Collins herself: “We have what we call a co-bot environment, so humans and robots working collaboratively. Robots do everything from dispensing sauce, to spreading sauce, to placing pizzas in the oven.”

You hear that? Robots do everything. Except that did not happen. Problems with the bots became evident early on, with the machines creating metal shavings that risked contaminating the food. It turns out there’s a wide variety of difference between stapling body panels together on an industrial line and the inherent variability that comes with cooking pizzas. In the end, the robots started doing the easy stuff (spreading sauce) while the humans did most of the work.

Well, never mind – what about the connected van? The idea was that the van would begin cooking your pizza enroute to your address, so when it got to you, it would be piping hot. GPS data is really amazing to use. There were fifty-six ovens per van. That meant we could get a hot-and-tasty pizza right there and then. What’s the downside?

Well, before we answer that – let’s ask another question. What’s the most popular pizza? It would have to be the margherita. In 1889 Raffaele Esposito, invented the “pizza Margherita” in honour of Queen Margherita. It was a simple dish – tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil. Conveniently the colours of the Italian flag. An iconic, and simple dish.

The cheese kept sliding off the pizzas while being cooked.

The cheese kept sliding off the pizzas while being cooked.

The cheese kept sliding off the pizzas while being cooked.

Northern California is hilly, so the vans would hit bumps, swerve through traffic, and generally jostle their way around. This meant that the ovens would shift around, and so would the pizzas. Toppings and cheese would keep sliding around. Zume could not handle the most simple of pizzas. In addition, due to the stress of having to power the ovens and also drive around towns, the vans would regularly break down.

Well, okay. Never mind. So it failed at two of its two goals. It’s not like it was worth any serious money.

Softbank invested $375 million in the company in 2018, and Zume ultimately raised $445 million. Softbank’s investment valued it at approx. 2.3 million US dollars. There’s a tale that Zygna man drove a van to the house of Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, who was so impressed with the idea that he invested right away.

This guy must be the dumbest motherfucker on this planet. That pizza was worth nearly 400 million dollars? Is this guy as thick as pig shit? You serve these assholes pizza from a van made by a robot and use some fancy buzzwords and you’re worth almost half a billion dollars? What insanity is this? Does this man just invest in anything that rolls up to his front door? Absolute shit for brains. CEOs really are so out of touch that they would just buy anything that looks shiny. Some people have actual shit rolling around in their skulls and should have their bank accounts locked away and their human rights derogated entirely.

Fast forward to January 2020 (this will be important to note…) and it turns out that Zume couldn’t sustain their pisspoor pizza-on-wheels business model. The company was reportedly burning through $10 million a day in summer 2019. They shuttered their entire pizza business and culled half of their employees.

Well, they did the pizza thing for five years. But maybe they could move to something else. After all, Instagram was originally a location-sharing app. Well, they moved into becoming a packaging company, and even patented an idea that stopped steam from getting trapped. That failed because their packaging contained carcinogens and legally couldn't be sold in California.

Okay. Not to worry. Well, they got in on the face mask craze, just like everyone else! It is 2020!

They failed because they were just expensive dust masks and actual full-face industrial-grade respirators could be had at a very similar price point.

In the end, investors stopped putting their money in, and the company limited on for a few more years, before shutting down on 2 June 2023. Good riddance.

At least the pizza was good: Their location in San Francisco had a 4-star rating on Yelp, in comparison to the 2-stars for the Dominos nearby.