The novel coronavirus crisis has shut down restaurants around the world — some, permanently. However, demand for fresh meals made to order has increased interest in robotics for food preparation and delivery. Piestro, a startup that has already raised more than $150,000 in crowdfunding, is looking to raise $2 million to make an affordable “automated pizzeria” a reality.
Americans were dining out more than ever until the COVID-19 pandemic. Labor shortages, changing palates, and razor-thin profit margins already posed challenges to hospitality and restaurant businesses. Up to 75% of independent restaurants that have closed in the U.S. during mandated shutdowns will not reopen, according to some industry analysts. The National Restaurant Association predicts that it will lose $225 billion and 5 million to 7 million employees in the coming quarter.
“We live in unprecedented times,” said Massimo De Marco, CEO of Piestro. “It’s hard to own a restaurant and meet profit margins while dealing with health and safety issues, more discerning customers, rising real estate costs, and labor shortages.”
“But I respectfully disagree with the analysts,” he told The Robot Report. “Coming from seven generations of a family involved with hospitality in Italy, I think that restaurant managers are resilient. Many will find ways to adapt while staying profitable. Restauranteurs need to navigate in this new environment and provide the trifecta of fast access, great quality, and consistency.”
Piestro builds automated pizzeria
“Piestro marries culinary excellence and passion with engineering talent,” said De Marco, who has owned and managed restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, including Kitchen United, one of the first delivery-only “ghost kitchens” in the U.S. “We saw a huge market opportunity and are designing the future of pizza making.”
“Piestro is not just building a pizza vending machine; it’s an automated pizzeria,” he said. “We brought young engineers to some of the best pizzerias in L.A. to show them why traditional recipes and fresh ingredients are so important. Using ingredients such as flour from the Amalfi Coast or San Marzano tomatoes from Naples makes for the perfect bite.”
“We refresh the dough and ingredients for the fully automated pizzeria every morning, like an ink cartridge for a printer,” De Marco explained. “We have remote monitoring, so if it makes more than 90 pizzas in a day, we can dispatch someone to refill it.”
“A robotic arm lifts the dough and brings it to a temperature-controlled area to be pressed into a 12-in. pie,” he said. “Then we start with tomatoes and mozzarella before moving it to a dispenser for toppings such as fresh vegetables or sausage. We can add up to five ingredients and are working on adding up to eight, as well as adding a carousel for distribution.”
“A ‘translator’ then moves the pie down the line and determines the cooking time, based on the ingredients and humidity,” said De Marco, who has also worked for Wolfgang Puck. “There is an impinger above and a thermal sensor below. A conveyor then moves it from the oven into a pizza box that is pushed out a window to a customer or an employee.”
“The translator can take the dough to make up to two pizzas at a time,” he said. “As soon as the first moves over for toppings, the second is right behind it,” he added. “While Piestro has only one dough per machine, depending on the customer, both the recipes and ingredients can be customized with the AI. Piestro makes a thin-crust Neapolitan-style pizza, but you could have a vegan pizza.”
Crowdfunding and development
Future Labs VI Inc., doing business as Piestro, is backed by Wavemaker Partners, which has $400 million in assets under management. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based startup is offering equity shares through StartEngine.com for the next 80 days.
“We’ve learned from each other in improving our food-preparation products,” De Marco said. “Piestro will use the money from the investment for the new carousel dispenser and a heated holding cabinet for smart capture and delivery.”
De Marco said Piestro also expects to use its funding to add more staffers to its team of 12 engineers and eight advisors. It plans to begin beta testing next year.
“We were in talks with a national pizza chain before the coronavirus, and we’re in discussions with a number of regional chains and large restaurant equipment companies,” said De Marco.
Target locations for Piestro
“We’re building a standalone device that is fully automated and can put pizzas in the hands of people in high-rise buildings, college dorms, or airports and be open 24/7,” said De Marco. “I travel a lot, and I look forward to being able to get a Piestro pizza anywhere.”
“Every morning, all areas of the automated pizzeria that are potentially touched would be sanitized,” he said. “Since we provide the AI on a SaaS [software-as-a-service] model, Piestro is always involved, whether a customer buys or leases it. We want to make sure that everything works properly.”
“Piestro enables companies to expand without investing a lot of money,” De Marco said. “It’s only $50,000 compared with $500,000 to $1 million for a new restaurant, and you can install several machines in only two to four weeks.”
“I know both models well,” said De Marco. “They do a fantastic job of preparing pizzas, but not cooking them. We’re all about the freshness of making and cooking pizza in front of you. We don’t want something that’s prebaked, partly cooked, or frozen and gets heated up — the flavors cannot be the same as with a fresh pizza.”
“Unlike Picnic, which uses three to four robots that are beautiful to watch but cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, we make pizza from scratch and take up only 3 ft. by 8 ft. in real estate. You can also move it depending on foot traffic,” he said. “By the middle of next year, you could start seeing Piestro’s automated pizzerias everywhere.”