When Andrew Simmons decided to buy a small-town pizza restaurant in January 2020, little did he know he’d be forced to close its doors later that month due to COVID.
Simmons, who’d been running a successful third-party delivery service targeted at small restaurant operators, soon realized he’d have to pivot to survive. Before long, his restaurant, Mamma Ramona’s – situated in a rural town on the outskirts of San Diego – began offering pizza kits to locals to pick up and take home.
Simmons persevered through the pandemic, but as restrictions lifted, he realized he wasn’t done. He’d always been an early adopter of technology, and now that he owned his own pizza restaurant, he began to think about ways to transform it through automation.
One of his first investments was a pizza robot from Picnic. The Picnic, which adds cheese, sauce, and some toppings to a pressed dough, can pump out 135 pizzas an hour. But as Simmons soon realized, it didn’t matter if his new pizza robot could apply cheese and sauce much faster and more consistently than his human workers if the rest of the work production flow at his restaurant couldn’t keep up.
“I could have a super fast machine that does 135 pies an hour, but if it still takes me four minutes to stretch dough, I’ve lost all of that,” Simmons told me.
He looked for other ways to automate the kitchen, and the most obvious was stretching the dough. He bought a dough press from Cuppone which, according to Simmons, could stretch a dough ball into a pie in seconds, compared to anywhere from a minute to four minutes for a human.
He also needed to cook pizzas more quickly. The restaurant came equipped with stone bake ovens that lost heat every time its doors opened, resulting in cook times of up to 15 or 20 minutes per pizza. Simmons bought a TurboChef, an ultra-fast single-pie oven that can bake a pizza in just over two minutes, to cook pizzas faster. He liked it so much that he bought two more with plans to buy six additional ovens so his cooking output could match the 135 pies per hour of the Picnic.
Simmons invested in other parts of his restaurant, adding refrigerators, point-of-sale systems, restaurant inventory software, and more. He estimates he’s spent around $200 thousand to automate his restaurant, which may seem like a lot but is a drop in the ocean compared to the capital spent by some startups building restaurant robots from scratch.
Simmons has plans to eventually expand into the broader San Diego market, centralizing production for sauces and other ingredients at his current restaurant. To make space, he’s already reduced the amount of space dedicated to dine-in service, which is unprofitable according to analytics software.
He’s also played with new business concepts enabled by new technology. Last fall, he announced a new pizza subscription for $149 per year ($99 during a Black Friday sale), which gets the subscriber a cheese pizza every week for a year. With his new automated workflow, he estimates his cost per pizza is around $2.65 per pie. He sends subscribers a reminder each week to use their coupon using a software program called Incentivio.
According to Simmons, the redemption rate for coupons is around 50%. Of the 300 or so subscriptions sold, only 15 subscribers have redeemed every coupon and have not purchased any additional food or drink. Most, according to Simmons, add items like sodas when redeeming their coupon.
And as automation’s gone up, Mamma Ramona’s employee count has gone down. The restaurant has four employees, down from fourteen in July of 2022. Many have left voluntarily, according to Simmons, choosing to leave rather than adjusting to the new automation-centered workflow. A few, he says, were let go when the restaurant started to move away from dine-in.
The departures haven’t all been seamless. According to Simmons, one angry former employee disparaged the restaurant after leaving on social media and reported it to the local health department. After closing for ten days to fix a slow drain problem (which included jackhammering into concrete to reach a drain trap partially blocked with marbles and ball bearings), Simmons was able to reopen his restaurant, but not before the same employee posted about the closing on Instagram.
Despite the challenges, Simmons believes he’s on the right path with automation. He points to proposed legislation in California that will could raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to $22 an hour (the bill was blocked but likely will be on the ballot in November of 2024) as a sign that wages for employees will only continue to increase, making it all but impossible for him to make pizzas affordably using the old model.
For now, he continues to tinker with new technology and launch new products. He has plans to expand his formula for restaurants into a chain, and believes he would need just 4% of the capital Zume raised over its lifetime ($423 million) to create a 100-restaurant chain and get to $100 million in revenue.
According to Simmons, the big difference between his model and Zume’s is that he’s using off-the-shelf technology available today rather than building it himself.
“I’m not trying to build a robot,” he said. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. That technology is here now.”