SpaceX rocket scientists built a robot that makes $8 pizzas

In an office park in Hawthorne, a robot built by rocket scientists is making pizza.

Inside the machine, a box roughly the size of a delivery truck, a metal claw pulls a ball of ready-made dough out of its cold chamber. A stamping machine then beats the dough into a 12-inch disc. On a conveyor belt, a nozzle spews out sauce, dispensers shake the cheese and toppings, then an elevator brings the fresh bread to one of four 900-degree deck ovens. Cameras and sensors track progress from each step, making small adjustments along the way. In 45 seconds, a finished pizza will pop out.

It tastes pretty good. It costs just $7 to order (or as much as $10, depending on the toppings). And with low labor costs and a chef who never eats, sleeps or rests, the team behind Stellar Pizza think they can eat away at the country’s $45 billion pizza market – or at least especially part of a pie dominated by low-cost, high-volume chains.

Benson Tsai founded the company in 2019, after leaving his job designing batteries for spacecraft and satellites at SpaceX, the rocket company led by Elon Musk near Stellar’s headquarters.

A robotic arm picks up a ball of dough.

A robotic arm picks up a dough ball during a pizza making demonstration at Stellar Pizza’s headquarters in Hawthorne.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

He’s convinced a few dozen fellow engineers to join him, raised $9 million in funding, and spent the past three years honing the Stellar recipe and building his pizza machine.

Now, they’re raising a second round of funding to build a fleet of finished robots, each of which can fit in the back of a bright red 16-foot truck to travel to stadiums and campuses. universities and other crowded locations. Orders will be made through a smartphone application; A small number of participants will be there to drive trucks, assemble boxes and distribute cupcakes.

Stellar is not alone in the field of food robots. Several restaurant automation companies have built labor-saving devices in recent years: delivery robots that run on the sidewalk, robots that serve tables between tables with plates on their heads and arms. Robots that can operate autoclaves have all found their place in the industry.

But pizza has attracted the attention of machines more than most other foods.

A ring of pizza dough sits underneath the mechanism that beats it.

Balls pounded into 12-inch discs (with crust)

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“Pizza is a huge opportunity and so a lot of players are entering the field,” said Chris Albrecht, an industry expert who writes the food automation newsletter OttOmate. “The universal appeal of pizza is what makes it a spearhead for startups looking to get into food automation.”

Because people – and especially Americans – eat a lot of pizza. The global pizza market is estimated to reach $130 billion in revenue, according to Pizza Magazine’s Pizza Power 2022 Report, and more than a third of that business is in the United States, where Americans spent about $45 billion on pie. pizza in 2021.

That demand was met by 75,117 pizza restaurants nationwide in 2021, with Domino’s leading the industry in sales. With franchises and company-owned stores, it has 6,597 locations in the US and more than 19,000 worldwide, according to its latest financial filings.

It took an army of workers to make all of that. Hundreds of thousands of people work at Domino’s locations, and hiring difficulties over the last year have hit the chain’s delivery business – during an April company earnings call, Domino’s told announced that they will continue to offer customers a $3 in-store credit to receive their merchandise. own pizza instead of ordering home delivery, a pandemic-era promotion.

Two men stand in front of a large white box.

Arik Jenkins, left, and Ty Kuo test Stellar’s pizza-making robot.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

This huge market facing labor constraints has inspired a number of different robotic approaches: pizza vending machines, self-contained robotic pizza kitchens, and robots that can infiltrate home kitchens. existing goods.

None of the categories have a clear winner – although a few are active right now. In the vending market, LA’s Basil Street coffee shop deployed 12 vending machines to cook frozen pizzas before shutting down in April. Pasadena’s Wavemaker Labs, the parent company of the Flippy kitchen robot fried, is building a pizza vending machine called Piestro, which cooks fresh pizza, and has announced a co-branding agreement with 800 Degrees Pizza.

Several other companies, such as Seattle’s Picnic and Bay Area’s XRobotics, make machines designed to be installed in a standard restaurant kitchen or just sit on a countertop, which can automatically prepare one. pizza with sauce and toppings; a human could then pop the assembled pie in the oven.

The best funded pizza startup to date, Zume Pizza, took off in early 2020 after receiving $375 million in funding from Softbank Vision Fund, the same venture capital firm that invested invested billions of dollars in WeWork before it collapsed. But Albrecht argues that calling Zume’s setup a pizza-making robot has always been a pain.

“Zume is not a robotics company,” says Albrecht, but one that takes a big data approach to predicting pizza demand to order its trucks efficiently. The process has never been fully automated, and uses pre-existing robotic arms to spread the sauce and pop the pizza into the oven while humans topping and shaping the dough.

Stellar's pizza robot interior coating assembly line.

Stellar’s pizza robot interior coating assembly line.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Stellar’s machine is closer to a miniature factory than a kitchen with robot chefs on duty – and Tsai has plans to dominate a larger market than many of its competitors. Rather than try to fill the convenience market of vending machines or target the restaurant industry with a plug-and-play pizzabot, he wants to turn Stellar into a brand with the same name as Domino’s. , Papa John’s or Pizza Hut and win the day through the power of transcendent economics.

“The cost of building our vehicle is about the same as building a Domino store,” says Tsai. He declined to give specifics, but said the cost was in the low six figures. Domino’s franchise agreement estimates that, minus franchise fees, insurance, supplies, and rent, opening a new location would cost between $115,000 and $480,000 to build.

At a lower cost than a staffed store, Tsai said Stellar can lower prices while maintaining the lucrative profit margins that pizza chains enjoy. Domino’s locations owned by the company have a profit margin of 21% in 2021, according to the company’s annual report, even after 30% of revenue has been consumed by labor costs.

Stellar plans to start rolling out its trucks to events in LA later this summer, after receiving final approval from the health department. In the meantime, the company is hosting pop-up events for newsletter subscribers at its headquarters in Hawthorne.

A pizza with the coating exits from the conveyor belt inside the pizza robot.

A pizza with topping is taken off the conveyor belt and onto a pedestal that transfers it onto a deck inside Stellar’s pizza machine.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Stellar’s expected price of $7 to $10 for a 12-inch pie, depending on the toppings, is comparable to that of Domino’s or Pizza Hut, although chains are typically lower with other brands. discount coupons. But if the big incumbents start to get cheaper, Tsai said he would “welcome a price war”.

But first, he needs customers. The pizza itself is the product of two years of refining the recipe for both taste and ease of automation. The end product has a thin crust, lightly sweet sauce, and can be ordered as a simple cheesecake, pepperoni, meatballs or with vegetables (diced onions, green peppers or olives).

Tsai started Stellar as a longtime pizza eater, but first time pizza entrepreneur – he says the only American food allowed was at his Taiwanese-American childhood home in Hacienda Heights Pizza from the local bakery. “I don’t want to make fun of it, but it’s called the best Pizza in the world,” says Tsai. “I really like it, but I really don’t think it’s the best pizza in the world.”

Tsai founded his own company before working at SpaceX, and after five years at the rocket company, he wanted to start over on his own — and focus on food.

His first thought was a boba robot. “I come from Taiwan,” said Tsai. “I want a boba vending machine.”

But a small market study shows that most Americans are still unfamiliar with the milk tea – tapioca combo. “Going to Missouri and trying to teach people how to drink this stuff like this, chewy corks” didn’t seem like a good business model for his first startup, says Tsai.

A pizza with toppings cooked in a deck oven

In the final step, the pizza is cooked to a temperature of about 900 degrees.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

When he started brainstorming for Stellar, he and his team researched the science of pizza, reading academic papers from Italian universities outlining mathematical models for heat transfer from ovens. to pizza dough and hypothesized the outer limit of pizza cooking speed. “Given my background in chemical engineering, I thought that was amazing,” says Tsai.

The company then brought in Noel Brohner, the celebrity pizza consultant behind Slow Rise Pizza Co., who has worked with elite LA chefs like Evan Funke and Ori Menashe (of Felix Trattoria and Bestia, respectively), adults like Tom Hanks and Bob Iger who want to perfect their pizza game at home, and big companies like Google and Mod Pizza to refine their recipes.

“When I started working with them, they had a warehouse with nothing in it. Now I have a better kitchen in my apartment in Santa Monica,” Brohner said. But when I first tasted the pie that Tsai and colleagues had cooked based on their own research, “I was really impressed and a bit shocked that a few rocket engineers could do so well for themselves. even before I got the job. ”

Dough poses the biggest challenges to automation, which is a sticky matrix of yeast, water and flour that changes with time, temperature and humidity. Stellar makes the dough at its headquarters, then loads the dough balls into the machine’s refrigerator to produce in a day. Often, Brohner said, the mutability of doughs requires human expertise to handle, deploy and troubleshoot. “But if you have lasers and video, images and thermal lenses” that can sense rapid changes, as in Stellar’s ​​machine, he says, “you can really do a lot of things.”

A finished pizza emerges from a deck oven.

The finished pizza came out of the oven.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Brohner does not see Stellar as a threat to the premium artisan pizza market, but as an opportunity to bring higher quality pizza to the masses. “What I like about it is that instead of having labor costs close to 20, 30, even 40%, it’s closer to 10%,” Brohner said. “So what they can do is use much higher quality ingredients” while keeping costs competitive with the big chains.

In an economy defined by a tight labor market and rising inflation, Stellar is betting that combination will be as appealing as cheese and ketchup. SpaceX rocket scientists built a robot that makes $8 pizzas

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