Zume first made waves by entering the scene as a robotic pizza company. Since then, however, the SF Bay Area startup has taken pains to demonstrate that it has its sights set on a loftier goal of providing sustainable infrastructure for the restaurant industry.
Last April, the company made its Zume Pizza wing a wholly owned subsidiary of the newly minted Zume Inc. Seven months later, it reportedly snapped up $375 million from SoftBank, and, in June, used some of that money to purchase Pivot, a plant-based alternative packaging company.
Today, the company takes an important step toward larger industry outreach with the announcement of new partner, &pizza. The chain, which operates 36 “fast-casual” locations, will be utilizing Zume’s “Forward Mobile Kitchen” trucks to expand outreach in its native Washington, D.C.
The food truck model opens the company to some new opportunities not always afforded by the standard brick and mortar model, including the ability to try out new neighborhoods and check the demand for different products.
“Today it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and takes a year, sometimes more, to open up a bricks and mortar store, but by leveraging our infrastructure they can open a new market in a matter of weeks and they can do it with a flexible financial model,” Zume CEO Alex Garden said in an interview with TechCrunch.
Zume’s offering is a combination of bespoke mobile kitchens that double as food trucks and delivery vehicles, combined with AI systems designed to better understand and respond to customer demand, based on location, traffic patterns and the like.
The deal isn’t make or break for Zume, but it’s an important step for a startup whose promises for profitability still appear fairly abstract from the outside. “What I can tell you for sure is that over between now and the end of the year there’s going to be really a staccato of announcements where we’ll talk about things we’re doing with partners and ways that we’re helping improve their businesses,” says Garden. “People can draw whatever conclusions they want from that financially, but all I can tell you about our financial approach to things is that we are good custodians of the investments that people have made in us and we take it really seriously.”
From the outside, at least, it appears as though the company has made a pivot from a focus on robot-made pizza to something much broader in search of a more viable model. Zume is quick to counter such claims, however, as Garden compares the company to the early days of Amazon. The executive notes that the company has shifted its focus to various aspects of the industry as offering real-world services like its pizza trucks has brought to life various solvable problems.
He turns to the example of pizza boxes, which Zume has transformed from the recognizable square cardboard variety to a round one with grates at the bottom, designed with the express purpose of keeping their contents warm.
“We did internet searches for two weeks trying to find packaging companies that made different pizza boxes and there really wasn’t very much out there, they’re almost all made by a small select group of companies that just repeat the same ideas over and over again,” Garden explains. “So I said, wow that’s really weird. Okay, well, let’s just, we’re a startup, no one can tell us what the rules are. Why don’t we just get a white board and draw what a cool pizza box would be.”
It’s a restless sort of approach to running a startup, but at very least, it has led the company in some interesting directions, and $375 million from SoftBank certainly demonstrates strong investor confidence for a startup with big ideas about revolutionizing the food industry.
Interestingly, it will also make &pizza a potential competitor for Zume Pizza, though the two won’t share a market for now. Garden adds that there’s plenty of space for competition. “People eat a lot of pizza,” he says. “I know it sounds like a trite answer, but there’s no risk at all of cannibalization.”