SpaceX rocket scientists built a robot that makes $8 pizza

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

Inside the machine, a box about the size of a delivery van, a metal claw pulls a ball of dough out of the cold store. The press then breaks the dough into a 12-inch disc. On a conveyor belt, a nozzle spits out the sauce, dispensers shake the top of the cheese and toppings, then a robotic lifter carries the raw pie into one of four 900-degree hearth ovens. Cameras and sensors track progress step by step, making tiny adjustments along the way. After 45 seconds, the finished pizza pops up.

The taste is pretty good. The order costs only $7 (or as much as $10, depending on the filling). And with low labor costs and a chef who never eats, sleeps or rests, the Stellar Pizza team believes they can take a bite out of the nation’s $45 billion pizza market – or at least that part of the pie. which dominates. large low cost chains.

Benson Tsai founded the company in 2019 after leaving his job developing batteries for spacecraft and satellites at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company around the corner from Stellar’s headquarters.

A robotic arm lifts a dough ball.

A robotic arm lifts a ball of dough during a pizza-making demonstration at Stellar Pizza headquarters in Hawthorne.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

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

Now they are raising a second round of funding to build a fleet of ready-made robots, each of which can fit into the back of a bright red 16-foot box truck to travel to stadiums, college campuses and other high-volume locations. Orders will be taken through a smartphone app; several people will drive a truck, collect boxes and distribute pies.

Stellar is not alone in the field of food robots. A number of restaurant automation companies have been building labor-saving devices in recent years: delivery robots that move along sidewalks, waiter robots that sit between tables with dishes on their heads, and robotic arms that can control friolators are all they find a foothold in the market. industry.

But pizza has garnered more mechanized attention than most other foods.

A piece of pizza dough lies under the mechanism that broke it.

The ball of dough is broken into a 12-inch disc.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

“Pizza is a huge opportunity, which is why many players are going into space,” said Chris Albrecht, an industry expert who writes food automation newsletter OttOmate. “Pizza’s universal appeal is what makes it a spearhead for startups looking to get into food automation.”

People — and especially Americans — eat a lot of pizza. According to Pizza Magazine, the global pizza market is worth approximately $130 billion in sales. 2022 Pizza Power Reportand more than a third of that business is in the US, where Americans spent about $45 billion on pizza in 2021.

In 2021, this demand was met in 75,117 pizzerias nationwide, with Domino leading the industry in sales. According to the franchise and its own stores, it has 6,597 locations in the US and over 19,000 worldwide. his latest financial statements.

It takes an army of workers to make all this dough. Hundreds of thousands of people work at Domino locations, and hiring difficulties last year impacted the chain’s delivery business — on a corporate call in April, Domino’s announced it would continue to offer shoppers $3 in store credit to pick up their own pizza instead of ordering delivery. pandemic era stocks.

Two people stand in front of a large white box.

Arik Jenkins (left) and Tai Kuo test the Stellar pizza-making robot.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

This very large market facing labor restrictions has inspired several different approaches to robots: pizza vending machines, stand-alone robotic pizza kitchens, and robots that fit into existing restaurant kitchens.

There is no clear winner in any of the categories – yet – although several are currently in operation. Los Angeles-based cafe Basil Street installed 12 vending machines at a vending market that used to serve frozen pizza. closing in April. Pasadena-based Wavemaker Labs, the parent company of Flippy’s frying robot, is building a pizza vending machine called Piestro that makes fresh pizza and has announced co-branding with 800 Degrees Pizza.

Several other companies, such as Seattle’s Picnic and Bay Area’s XRobotics, make machines designed to be installed in standard restaurant kitchens or simply placed on the countertop that can automatically prepare pizza with sauce and toppings; the person can then put the assembled cake into the oven.

The most funded pizza robot startup to date, Zume Pizza, collapsed in early 2020 after receiving $375 million in funding from the SoftBank Vision Fund, the same venture capital firm that invested billions in WeWork before its collapse. But Albrecht argues that calling the Zume setup a pizza robot has always been a stretch.

“Zume was not a robot company,” Albrecht said, but rather a company that introduced a big data approach to predicting pizza demand to efficiently position its trucks. The process has never been fully automated, and robotic arms were used to spread the sauce and place the pizza in the oven while humans applied the toppings and shaped the dough.

Topping assembly line inside a Stellar pizza robot.

Topping assembly line inside a Stellar pizza robot.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The Stellar machine looks more like a miniature factory than a kitchen with robotic chefs on an assembly line, and Tsai plans to enter the market on a bigger scale than many competitors. Instead of trying to fill a convenient vending machine niche or target the restaurant industry with a ready-made pizza robot, he wants to turn Stellar into a well-known brand on par with Domino’s, Papa John’s or Pizza Hut and win the day. thanks to the strength of the higher economy.

“The cost of assembling a car is about the same as a Domino’s store,” Tsai said. He declined to give details, but said the cost was six figures. Under the Domino franchise agreement, after deducting franchise fees, insurance, supplies, and rent, it costs between $115,000 and $480,000 to open a new office.

With lower overheads compared to a people-employed store, Tsai says Stellar can lower prices while still maintaining the high margins enjoyed by pizza chains. According to the company’s annual report, the company’s Domino facilities had a profit margin of 21% in 2021, even after 30% of revenue was eaten away by labor costs.

Stellar plans to start using its trucks at events in Los Angeles this summer, once it receives final approval from the health department. Meanwhile, the company is hosting pop-ups for newsletter subscribers at its Hawthorne headquarters.

The topped pizza comes off the conveyor belt inside the pizza robot.

The stuffed pizza rolls off a conveyor belt onto a platform that takes it to a deck oven inside the Stellar pizzeria.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Stellar’s planned price range of $7 to $10 for a 12-inch pie, depending on toppings, is comparable to Domino’s or Pizza Hut, though chains are often cheaper with coupons. But if the big players in the market start to get cheaper, Tsai said, he “welcomes a price war.”

But first he needs clients. The pizza itself is the result of a two-year refinement of the recipe, both in taste and ease of automation. The end product has a thin crust and slightly sweet sauce, and can be ordered as a plain cheese pie or with pepperoni, meatballs, or vegetables (diced onions, green peppers, or olives).

Tsai started Stellar as a longtime pizza eater but pizza’s first entrepreneur. He said the only American food allowed at his Taiwanese-American childhood home in Hacienda Heights was pizza from a local candy store. “I don’t want to talk about it, but it was called The World’s Best Pizza,” Tsai said. “I really liked it, but I don’t really think it’s the best pizza in the world.”

Tsai started his own company before he started at SpaceX, and after five years at the rocket company, he wanted to go back to self-employment and focus on food.

His first thought was a robot bean. “I’m from Taiwan,” Tsai says. “I wanted a bean vending machine.”

But a little market research has shown that most Americans are still unfamiliar with the combo of milk tea and tapioca balls. “Going to Missouri and trying to teach people how to drink this chewy nugget” didn’t seem like a good business model for his first startup, Tsai said.

Topped pizza is cooked in a deck oven.

Pizza is baked in the oven at 900 degrees.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

As soon as he came up with the idea for Stellar, he and his team delved into pizza science, reading academic papers from Italian universities that described mathematical models for heat transfer from ovens to pizza dough, and theorizing about external limits on pizza cooking speed. “Given my background in chemical engineering, I thought it was amazing,” Tsai said.

The company then brought in Noel Broner, famous pizza consultant behind Slow Rise Pizza Co.who has worked with high-end LA chefs like Evan Funke and Ori Menashe (of Felix Trattoria and Bestia respectively), bigwigs like Tom Hanks and Bob Iger who want to perfect their home pizzeria, and big companies like like google. and Mod Pizza to refine your recipes.

“When I started working with them, they had a warehouse with nothing in it. I now have a better kitchen in my Santa Monica apartment,” Broner said. But when he first tasted the pie that Tsai and his colleagues made based on their own research, “I was really impressed and a little shocked that a couple of rocket engineers could work so well for themselves even before I was invited. ”

Dough presents the biggest challenge for automation as it is a sticky matrix of yeast, water and flour that changes with time, temperature and humidity. Stellar makes the dough at its headquarters and then loads the dough balls into the machine’s refrigerator for a day’s worth of production. Typically, according to Broner, test variability requires human expertise to process, deploy, and troubleshoot. “But if you have lasers, video, photos and thermal pens that sense changes on the fly, like in a Stellar machine,” he said, “you can really do a lot.”

The finished pizza comes out of the hearth oven.

The finished pizza comes out of the oven.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Broner sees Stellar not as a threat to the high-quality handmade pizza market, but as an opportunity to make higher-quality pizza available to the masses. “What I like about it is that the cost of labor is not 20%, 30% or even 40%, but 10%,” Broner said. “So they can use much higher quality ingredients,” while keeping costs competitive with the big chains.

In an economy driven by a tight labor market and rising inflation, Stellar is betting that the combination will be almost as appealing as cheese and tomato sauce.