‘Makeline of the future:’ Automated pizza technology expands to more college campuses

Picnic Works recently expanded its partnership with Chartwells Higher Education to expand its footprint to several university campuses.

This expansion follows a successful pilot program at Texas A&M and the University of Chicago and could have broad implications for the future of foodservice as a whole. That’s because, so far, it’s proving the success of the company’s automated Picnic Pizza Station, or at least the technology’s relevance to digitally savvy Gen Z consumers.

Indeed, several automated food service companies (and spinoffs) are targeting college campuses to find similar proof points. For example, sidewalk delivery robots like Kiwibot and Starship Technologies have been delivering snacks to students for years. Sodexo recently added ramen vending machines to some of its campuses and began operating an autonomous Jamba by Blending machine at Georgia College.

There’s a reason colleges and universities are the catalyst for such technology. For starters, campuses typically include ubiquitous crosswalks and definitive borders, making it easy for those little sidewalk robots to make late-night deliveries.

Campuses are also full of captive audiences of consumers who have grown up in a digital and on-demand world and who are therefore more open to such technologies. In fact, Big Red Rooster research shows that Gen Z diners are more likely to experience positive emotions in the presence of food service automation.

“Colleges have traditionally been open to experimenting with new technologies, like to stay on the cutting edge of science, and are often driven to experiment by student curiosity,” said Picnic Executive Director Clayton Wood. “Our deployment at Texas A&M has piqued the interest of robotics and engineering students, and we’ve seen some of them added to the campus food service team. Engineers who want to work in kitchens are not very common.”

As this generation grows up, the food automation market is expected to grow by nearly 10% every year until 2027, according to a thorough study.

However, this technology has more attractions than generational relevance. Wood said the collaboration with Texas A&M University was created specifically to combat labor challenges and rising food costs. The Picnic Station, for example, makes up to 100 pizzas per hour with one operator. Usually this volume requires at least three workers. The difference adds up to about $35,000 a year in labor costs.

“Also, by applying a consistent amount of ingredients to each pizza, without overflow or spillage, Picnic Station can reduce food waste by around 80%.” Cheese and meat are the most expensive component of any pizza, so by ensuring accurate placement and consistent measurement, restaurants can better manage food costs and the kitchen will put thousands of dollars a year back into their pockets,” said Wood.

And, he adds, all this is done without sacrificing quality. During the Texas A&M pilot test, Picnic pizzas achieved an overall approval rating of 83 percent during a blind taste test—about 10 points higher than human-made pizzas.

These attributes are the impetus behind extended deployment. Starting this fall, Picnic will be available at Texas A&M, the University of Chicago, Missouri State University, Carroll University and Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. The potential beyond this expansion is significant. Chartwells manages food services at over 300 colleges and universities in the US. Not to mention that pizza is the most popular food for American college students.

However, Wood believes off-campus deployment is inevitable because automation “solves real problems for operators.”

“We are creating the model of the future. I think the potential is almost endless,” he said. “Automated food systems can increase the bottom line for colleges and provide a field of inspiration and research for new food concepts that will reach the larger consumer market.”

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