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How the Pizza Pie Went from Comfort Food Favorite to High-Tech Innovator

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How many ways can you slice a pizza? More than you would think. The humble pizza pie is suddenly going high tech, and the transformation of this comfort food favorite points to the innovations that will shape business and consumer tastes in the coming years.

It may not seem like there’s much room to improve the classic formula of dough, tomato sauce, cheese and toppings. Did someone finally settle the long-fought deep dish-vs.-thin crust debate? No, but restaurant operators and tech companies are developing new ways to make and deliver pizza faster and hotter than ever.

The Chipotle of pizza gets celebrity backing.

Pizza shops let customers select their own toppings long before Chipotle started customizing burritos. But even pizza is getting a fast-casual update. Blaze Pizza has grown from two to 200 locations in the last four years, thanks in part to the high-profile backing of investor LeBron James.

It’s not the only new pizza chain built around the familiar walk-along assembly line. MOD Pizza, Cucinova, Pieology, Pie Five and many others are bringing customized, personal-sized pies to shopping centers and storefronts around the country. At 37 percent, pizza is by far the largest sector of fast-casual restaurants.

Domino’s gets an upgrade and AI quality control.

Fast-casual concepts answer a new expectation among customers: They don’t just want a pizza, they want an experience. Domino’s, as traditional a pizza-maker as they come, has its own response to this trend. Domino’s latest ad campaign promotes the chain’s redesigned storefronts–bright, open “pizza theaters” that immerse diners in the pizza-making process.

Behind the scenes, the chain is testing artificial intelligence to help make those pizzas even better–or at least more consistent. The Pizza Checker, now being tested in Australia, snaps a photo of a finished pizza and uses Google-powered AI to compare it an ideal pie. If there’s not enough sausage, say, or the pepperoni isn’t evenly distributed, the system alerts the store manager to reject the pie. It’s perhaps an early peak at how artificial intelligence can bring objective quality control to the rather subjective world of restaurant cooking.

Silicon Valley startup disrupts dough and delivery.

Machine learning may be helping Domino’s perfect its pizza, but it’s still crafted by human hands. Zume Pizza is going a step further by using robots to make its pies. The food delivery startup uses a “Doughbot” to press dough into a perfect circle in just nine seconds–five times faster than humans–while other robots spread the right amount of sauce and remove pizzas from hot ovens.

Automating these tasks may relieve the tedium of pizza-making, but it doesn’t answer customers’ top concern: Slow delivery that results in ice-cold pie. For that, Zume has a different solution: Cooking pizza on the way to your house.

Zume has a fleet of pizza-making trucks, each armed with dozens of ovens, that brave the congested byways of Silicon Valley to deliver piping-hot pizza within 20 minutes. Of course, artificial intelligence plays a role here, too. The company uses predictive analytics to determine the volume and types of pizzas is needs to have ready to heat up on the way to customers’ homes.

Self-driving cars are next for pizza … and beyond.

Zume’s impressive pizza-making trucks are still being driven by humans. What if you could automate pizza delivery as well? Ford and Domino’s are way ahead of you.

The carmaker and pizza chain have teamed up to test deliveries in Domino’s hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, using a self-driving Ford Fusion. Customers receive a text message to tell them the delivery car has arrived in front of their house; customers then have to come out to the car and use a touchscreen to retrieve their pizza from an insulated compartment.

This customer interaction is part of the test, of course. (Will people still order pizza in their pajamas if they have to come outside to retrieve it?) As the wrinkles are ironed out, it has implications for the delivery of products way beyond pizza. Ford expects that automated delivery will really take off within four years, when the carmaker plans to have fully self-driving cars on the roads.

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