Robotics leader Picnic has developed a pizza making robot that’s already being used by Zaucer Pizza in Redmond, Washington, and by Centerplate at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park.

Photo courtesy of Picnic

What Does the Future of Pizza Look Like?

From ghost kitchens to foodbots and modular pizzerias with smaller footprints, technology and innovation will redefine, reshape and resize tomorrow’s pizzeria.

By Rick Hynum

Predicting the future is tricky business, and some of us should know better than to even try. In PMQ’s June 2017 cover story, we suggested that Zume Pizza, a delivery-only start-up manned in part by robotic pizzaioli, “may be the sci-fi pizzeria of the future.” As of January 2020, Zume Pizza, headquartered in Mountain View, California, was no more, at least as a pizza operation; its founders laid off 50% of its workforce and switched their focus to food packaging, production and delivery.

At least we said “may be.”

Tomorrow’s pizzeria, like Toledo, Ohio-based Marco’s Pizza, will likely place a premium on fast delivery to customers wherever they are, whenever they’re hungry for a pie.

Futurists have been getting it wrong since at least the 1960s, when they predicted space colonies on the moon and a jet pack in every home by 2020. But you don’t have to go out on a limb to predict some disruptive changes on the way for the pizza industry, some of them fast-forwarded by the pandemic. “The only constant…will be the speed of change and the hypercompetition the restaurant and foodservice industry will face,” the National Restaurant Association (NRA) states in its report, Restaurant Industry 2030: Actionable Insights for the Future. “Ordinary won’t cut it in 2030. What constitutes a restaurant is rapidly changing. The off-premises market—carryout, delivery, drive-thru and mobile units—is where the majority of industry growth is going to come over the next 10 years.”

And, as the report explains, technology is the driving force: “The only reason growth can occur is that the technology is now in place to support it. Data-driven decisions will expand beyond sales and staffing applications to guest services, supply-chain logistics and menu development, allowing restaurants to adapt what to sell in real time as demand dictates.”

Even the definition of a “restaurant” will get fuzzy. “Some restaurants will morph into a hybrid model, offering counter service, full service, takeout and delivery, and meal kits,” the NRA report says. Others will offer delivery only or a mix of carryout and delivery without a dine-in option.

No matter what, the pace of change will accelerate, and innovation must become part of every independent restaurant’s DNA, especially if you want to keep up with major chains.

Off-premise dining is where the majority of restaurant industry growth will come from in the next decade, and innovative chains like Marco’s Pizza are working to stay ahead of the trend.

Ghost Stories

There’s nothing scary about ghost kitchens—stripped-down facilities that produce food exclusively for delivery without the need for costly build-outs of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Ghost kitchens could create a $1 trillion opportunity for food delivery by 2030 by reducing food costs and speeding up delivery times, according to global research firm Euromonitor.

“This is the trend,” says Peter Klamka, owner of The Blind Pig in Las Vegas and CEO of Cordia Corporation, which specializes in ghost kitchens and THC-infused foods for food establishments. “Pizza is a commodity. Pizza will shift to high-end delivery only.”

Although The Blind Pig is a dine-in operation offering pizza, Italian dishes and American comfort food, Klamka believes the dine-in experience “is going away fast…I think the middle market for dine-in is being squeezed out. I see fast food and high-end dining [as the future].”

Legends of Tomorrow

Don’t miss these upcoming PMQ Live streamcasts on the future of pizza!

PMQ Live Update

  • 2 p.m. (CT), Thursday, October 15
  • PMQ’s Brian Hernandez talks to U.S. Pizza Team member Gene McWilliams of Flora, Illinois, about his ghost kitchen operation, Kitchens Unlimited, with three different takeout/delivery concepts.

PMQ Live Marketing Masters

  • 2 p.m. (CT), Monday, October 12
  • PMQ publisher Steve Green delves into menu engineering and the future of digital menu development with one of the industry’s great marketing masters, Greg Rapp of Menu Engineers.

Many restaurateurs see a brighter future for dine-in, but chains like Marco’s Pizza, headquartered in Toledo, Ohio, are planning for a healthy mix of on- and off-premise in their business models, especially since third-party platforms will make it easier to get food into more customers’ hands. “One way to ensure customers the same great experience via a third-party app…is to optimize your kitchen for those types of orders,” says Ron Stilwell, Marco’s vice president and chief development officer. “We’re piloting virtual kitchens and ghost kitchens as we speak with franchisees in California, North Carolina and Houston, and we’re off to a great start. These virtual or ghost kitchens are all about efficiency in a shared kitchen space, which also allows us to easily use third-party delivery drivers and provide a quick-to-open format.”

“Virtual or ghost kitchens are all about efficiency in a shared kitchen space, which also allows us to easily use third-party delivery drivers and provide a quick-to-open format.”

— Ron Stilwell, Marco’s Pizza

Independent pizzeria operator Chuck Sillari also sees the potential of ghost kitchens. His single-unit restaurant, Mortadella Head in Somerville, Massachusetts, is working on a ghost kitchen that will serve five towns. “We feel this will be a great test to see if we are able to drive sales using our digital assets and social media,” Sillari says. “Cloud kitchens will become big, in my opinion. People want the convenience of delivery. With everything becoming on-demand, there is a whole generation of pizza customers out there that have never called up a pizza shop to place an order and picked up their pizza. They only know how to use an app on their phone, and the pizza shows up at their front door. We are happy to serve these people the best pizza out there.”

Mary Jane Riva, president and CEO of Oakhurst, California-based Pizza Factory, said she’s “intrigued” by the ghost-kitchen concept. “It’s a great way to complement an existing location by being able to expand your presence in the market with a much lower overhead, such as in an industrial type of location. This is on our radar, but we still tend to favor the takeout and delivery model in a neighborhood center and a strip mall.”

This artist rendering depicts the prefabricated, small-footprint “podular” restaurants developed by Marco’s Pizza for carryout, walk-up and delivery.

Mad About Modular

Rally’s Drive-In might be a drive-thru burger joint, but it placed a huge delivery order in April 2018: An almost complete modular restaurant was transported by flatbed truck to a new Rally’s site in Whitehall, Ohio. It was one of dozens that Rally’s has installed in the past several years.

Instead of maximizing “butts in seats,” pizzerias of the future will aim to serve as many customers as possible, wherever they might be. That’s why you should expect to see more smaller-footprint units, with a focus on off-premise dining, Marty McCauley, design director at Cincinnati-based design firm NELSON Worldwide, told QSR magazine recently. “[What] we really believe is the future of quick-service restaurants is, instead of these 3,000-square-foot units, you’re going to see maybe 1,500- or 2,000-square-foot units. What brands have learned is they have to have the ability to be agile, and customers are really responding to things like curbside pickup and other off-premises channels.”

Marco’s Pizza has high hopes for its own prefabricated “podular” units, which are designed for carryout, walk-up and delivery. With a smaller footprint—about 850 square feet—podular units make it easier and more affordable to get into the pizza business. “Although we designed our podular unit pre-pandemic, the model complements the ‘new restaurant era’ that has been greatly impacted by COVID-19, specifically the increased demand for a contact-free experience,” Stilwell says. “We have several franchisees in the process of piloting this unit, which will allow them to own and operate a Marco’s Pizza at a much lower cost while expanding our reach to areas that lack real estate options for a full build-out. It shrinks the timeline from signing an agreement to grand opening, while still creating jobs, as the team member size is about the same as a traditional Marco’s Pizza unit—15 to 25 employees.”

Starship Technologies’ food delivery robots are already making the rounds on college campuses like the University of Mississippi. Photo by Christian Johnson, University of Mississippi.

Going Robotic

Delivery and carryout did not compute for robot-heavy Zume Pizza, but they were definitely on to something. Robotic technology for food preparation has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, led by companies like Picnic, a Seattle-based tech startup. Last year, Picnic unveiled a robot system that can make 300 pies in an hour. The highly compact system, already in use by Zaucer Pizza in Redmond, Washington, flattens the dough, distributes sauce and arranges toppings. The technology “will make our pizza production process more efficient and [our] business more competitive,” Zaucer Pizza co-CEO Aaron Roberts said last October.

Marco’s Pizza will also tap into the power of foodbots. “We’re meeting with various manufacturers on integrating robotics into our kitchens, with a goal to automate our high-traffic locations for efficiency and accuracy,” Stilwell says. “The primary benefit of utilizing this form of technology is speed—lowering delivery times and maximizing high-volume opportunity. At the same time, we need to ensure our quality standards are maintained, and we are in the process of testing all these aspects, which is very tricky. One of the benefits we’ve seen in these tests is on food costs. For instance, the robot is engineered to use the exact measurement of sauce, cheese and toppings, which reduces food waste and saves money.”

“[Food robots] will make our pizza production process more efficient and our business more competitive.”

— Aaron Roberts, Zaucer Pizza

Major chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut have also been developing driverless cars for pizza delivery, but the jury’s still out on that technology. Food delivery robots, however, are already a reality, especially on college campuses like George Mason University and the University of Mississippi, among others. In a column for Cheese Market News last October, Ed Zimmerman, president of The Food Connector, said robots can relieve labor issues for pizzerias and other restaurants. “The idea of incorporating robots to cook, clean, serve and approve transactions on debit cards might be the greatest gift operators can get,” Zimmerman wrote. “Hiring, training, scheduling and disciplining disappear. Surly cashiers replaced by electronic helpers lowers consumers’ expectations of courteous service.”

The Pizza Factory chain’s president and CEO is “intrigued” by ghost kitchens, but she believes customers will always crave the social experience of dining out with family or friends.

Data Matters

It probably goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Customer data matters now, and it will matter even more in the future. Tracking customer preferences and rewarding their loyalty will be of paramount importance to pizzerias’ success—and new technology will make that easier. “The ability to provide exemplary customer service boils down to the ability to personalize marketing and call-to-action messages gleaned from things like customer location, demographic data, and other digital or purchase-history cues,” notes Ryan Christiansen, co-founder and CEO of Ntooitive Digital, a Las Vegas-based marketing and technology company.

“People need interaction, and this will not go away—and thank goodness. What a world this would be without it!”

— Mary Jane Riva, Pizza Factory

“I suggest implementing multi-touch attribution technology to measure the cross-channel consumer journey in real time,” he adds. Multi-touch attribution is the act of determining the value of each customer touchpoint that leads to a conversion, which helps identify the marketing channels that are working for you. “With the number of cell phones that are in the pockets of consumers today, restaurant marketers can serve up targeted ads, capture mobile device IDs, and gain a granular understanding of how channels are performing on a daily basis in order to drive conversions,” Christiansen says. “Multi-touch attribution can help inform your creative ideas and messaging with actionable insight, too, enabling you to quickly adjust, optimize and improve your marketing and media investments.”

Thanks to data-crunching technology, the pizzeria operator of the future might know the customer better than the customer knows himself. And that’s okay, because the pizza business will always be a people business. For all of today’s gee-whiz tech and innovations, Riva, for one, believes folks will always want to sit down at a table with friends, eat a pie and just chat. “People need interaction, and this will not go away—and thank goodness,” she says. “What a world this would be without it! Will we be operating differently and have some new ways of accommodating our guests? Yes. But community is necessary for society, and where better to have community than over a great meal in a community restaurant that you know, trust, love and feel a connection to?”  

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.