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A Little Known Pizza Chain Shows Domino's Its Robot Future

Robots are taking over making America's favorite dish, with chains like PizzaForno setting up automated kiosks.
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Pizza may be the perfect food for automation. It's composed of relatively few ingredients and many chains, Domino's (DPZ) - Get Domino's Pizza, Inc. Report included, already use automated ovens. That makes it a relatively small leap (albeit an expensive one) to go from semiautomated to fully automated and one small U.S. chain has said it's not only doing it, but doing it well. 

American pizza chain PizzaForno is investing in robot-operated artisanal pizza vending machines as food tech enjoys its disruptive moment amid acute labor shortages in the U.S. 

The fast-casual chain is planning to set up 1,000 fully automated PizzaForno kiosks across the U.S. by the end of next year. The company has 40 kiosks in North America, including five units in Michigan.

This Is Not New Technology

PizzaForno co-Founders Les Tomlin and Will Moyer told QSR Magazine, a trade publication for the fast-food restaurant segment, that they first witnessed the "aha" moment in a small French town north of Paris 3 1/2 years ago.

"The technology has been around France for the better part of 10 years. Covid, the labor shortage, people don't want to spend 10 minutes waiting for anything. All those things add up to super fast, super convenient, super quick serve. That's where I think everybody's got to go," Tomlin said.

PizzaForno partly bakes its crusts, flash freezes them, then has humans top them at regional kitchens before they’re delivered to the refrigerated innards of its 80-square-foot machines.

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When someone orders a pizza from the device’s attached 32-inch touch screen, the machine bakes it in three minutes. Once the order is received, a robotic arm removes a pizza from the cold section, pops open the lid and lifts it into a proprietary convection oven where it bakes for about 90 to 120 seconds.

Raising the Bar for Domino's

"Our goal is to set the bar higher than the national chains, like Domino's and Little Caesars, and be able to compete closely with the local artisanal pizzeria every city in America [has],” Tomlin told QSR Magazine.

The pizza chain reportedly has commitments for 200 locations between Southern California, Louisiana and Florida. It is further beefing up plans to sign licensing deals nationwide.

PizzaForno's kiosks, which can store 70 pizzas, were first tested in Canada, as reported by QSR magazine.

Domino's has not revealed any plans to take human labor out of its pizza-making process. It has, however, tested different ways to use automation/robots to deliver its pizza. Labor shortages could lead chains including Domino's to invest in this type of technology.

That's somewhat challenging at a franchised operation like Domino's because franchisees generally have to front the cost of new equipment. The parent company can offer loans or even pay for some of the new equipment, but getting franchisees to pay up-front costs for remodels has been a challenge even for McDonald's,  (MCD) - Get McDonald's Corporation Report which recently had its franchisees adopt new designs and kiosk-based ordering.

Some 11.033 million positions in the U.S. are unfilled, according to an update on job vacancies from the October Jolts [Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey] report. That's the second-highest tally on record and 431,000 higher than the final September reading.