The moment I heard there would be a robot making pizza at CES 2020, I knew I had to make it a priority to grab a slice at the earliest opportunity.
The very first thing I did when I hit the show floor on Monday was make a beeline for Picnic's booth, where the company's pizza robot was set up and ready to churn out thousands of pies over the course of the week for CES punters.
The robot is made by Washington-based Picnic, but in Las Vegas the company works with Centerplate, the catering provider at the city's convention center, using its recipe, ingredients and staff to bake the pies. Unlike many things you see at CES, this isn't just a stunt designed specifically for the event. Picnic and Centerplate have been working together since fall 2019 to serve pizza at the Seattle Mariners' T-Mobile Park baseball stadium.
The robot is made up of different modules that are attached together and can be programmed into an assembly line, which is small enough to fit into a truck, but could also be scaled up for bigger kitchens. It can be fully automated, even responding to customers sending in their order via an app for pickup. In the future it will be used for other dishes that involve assembly and customization, but today we're eating pizza.
"We're set up to handle whatever the chef wants to do," said Clayton Wood, Picnic's CEO at the company's booth. It can cope with any ingredients or dough types -- it just works with the restaurant's ingredients. At the LVCC, Centerplate uses frozen dough bases that are placed on a conveyer by humans, but Wood explains that you can easily use hand-tossed dough -- most experienced pizza chefs have no trouble keeping up with the machine, he said.
In my demo, the robot recognized the dough base as soon as it was laid down and it quickly whizzed along the conveyer to the next station where tomato sauce flowed onto the dough out of a tap, one neat line in time. I could already tell the spread of ingredients was going to be totally precise and even.
The sauce hadn't even finished pouring when the cheese started flying out of a shoot as though out of an uzi. In this case it was diced mozzarella, but just as with the dough, the robot can handle all different types of cheese -- with one exception. "There's no liquid cheese or anything like that," said Wood. I expressed my relief at not having to consume synthetic dairy paste.
Next came the pepperoni. Little frisbees flopped onto the cheese in a satisfyingly neat pattern. At CES, Picnic's robot is set up to make pepperoni, sausage or margherita pizza, but at the point of customization, each module of the robot can dispense six different ingredients, allowing for a potentially endless array of variations.
In Seattle, the robot delivers the pizzas directly into the oven, but at the booth there wasn't quite space for that setup so they are transferred by hand. Then it was just a waiting game until the pizza emerged on the other side, cheese golden and puckered, crust puffed and perfectly charred, the familiar whiff of freshly baked dough filling my nostrils...
How does Picnic's robot pizza measure up?
As soon as I was given the go-ahead, I didn't hesitate before diving in. But the robot-baked pizza wasn't the only slice I ate in Vegas this week. For purposes of comparison and also needing to eat dinner, I also grabbed a slice from the Cosmopolitan Hotel's hip Secret Pizza joint and a pie from Pizza Rock, which is renowned as the best pizza place in Sin City.
Before I give my verdict, a quick note on my qualifications for conducting this taste test: I've tasted the best that New York and Naples have to offer and can tell you all about the benefits of baking with 00 flour. But I'm also not a snob -- it's one of my core beliefs that even the worst pizza is better than 99% of other food.
At Secret Pizza, I opted for a ricotta and sausage slice, which was reheated in the oven before I ate it. The crust was thin and crispy (maybe a touch too crispy), and had the odd air bubble, while the cheese was delicious and plentiful and a definite highlight. There was a lovely shine to it, but no residual oil left on my hands. My main criticism is of the sauce, which was a little thin and not spread very generously. It was also on the savory side and could have been a pinch sweeter.
At Pizza Rock, I felt compelled to go with the award-winning Napoli-style Margherita. The crust here was spot on -- well aerated, soft, with the perfect amount of charring and chew. There was a great tang to the sauce, and the mozzarella was well-spaced and proportional to the sauce and basil. The only flaw I can think of is that it lacked structural integrity, but that is a compromise you tend to make with ultra-thin bases.
As for the Picnic pizza, while I could see the ingredients were perfectly arranged, I did not have high hopes when I saw that frozen base. I was pleasantly surprised then when I saw how much it puffed up both around the rim and full of bubbles when cut through. It held up well while I chomped through it on the run to my next meeting and I even ate the whole yeasty crust, which isn't always a given. The cheese was stretchy, the sauce thick and well balanced -- I honestly have zero complaints.
When I agreed to eat robot-made pizza, I was expecting a fast food experience, but what I got was so much better. Maybe it wasn't award-winning Pizza Rock good, but I enjoyed eating this just as much if not more than I did my slice from Secret Pizza. So there you have it -- Picnic's CES pizza slice isn't just great for a convention center, it would be considered delicious anywhere.