Picnic Works recently expanded its partnership with Chartwells Higher Education to expand its footprint to several college campuses.
This expansion follows a successful pilot program at Texas A&M and the University of Chicago, and it could have broad implications for the future of foodservice in general. That’s because it so far proves the success of the company’s automated Picnic Pizza Station, or at least the technology’s relevance to a digitally-savvy Gen Z consumer.
Indeed, several automated foodservice (and adjacent) companies are targeting college campuses to find similar proof points. Sidewalk delivery robots like Kiwibot and Starship Technologies have been delivering munchies to students for years now, for example. 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 a catalyst for such technology. For starters, campuses typically include ubiquitous walking paths and definitive boundaries, which makes it easier for those little sidewalk robots to make late-night deliveries.
Campuses are also filled with a captive audience of consumers who grew up in a digital and on-demand world and who are therefore more open to such technology. In fact, research from Big Red Rooster shows Gen Z diners are more likely to feel positive emotions in the presence of foodservice automation.
“Colleges are traditionally open to experimenting with new technologies, love to stay on the cutting-edge of science, and are often driven to experiment through the curiosity of the students,” said Picnic CEO Clayton Wood. “Our deployment at Texas A&M piqued the interest of robotics and engineering students and we saw some of them added to the campus foodservice team. Engineers wanting to work in kitchens isn’t very common.”
As this generation grows up, the food automation market is expected to increase by nearly 10% each year through 2027, according to Meticulous Research.
There are more draws to this technology than generational relevance, however. Wood said the collaboration with Texas A&M University was created specifically to combat labor challenges and rising food costs. The Picnic Station, for instance, makes up to 100 pizzas an hour with one operator. Typically, this volume would require at least three workers. The difference yields about $35,000 a year in labor costs.
“Also, by applying a consistent amount of ingredients on every pizza, without overtopping or spilling, the Picnic Station can reduce food waste by about 80%. Cheese and meats are the most expensive component of any pizza, so by ensuring accurate placement and consistent measurement, restaurants can better manage food costs and a kitchen will see thousands of dollars per year back in their pockets,” Wood said.
And, he adds, this is all done without sacrificing quality. During the Texas A&M pilot, Picnic’s pizzas scored an overall approval rating of 83% during a blind taste test–about 10 points higher than human-made pizzas.
These attributes are the impetus behind the expanded rollout. Beginning 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 foodservice at over 300 colleges and universities in the U.S. Not to mention, pizza is the most popular food for U.S. college students by far.
That said, Wood believes a rollout beyond campuses is imminent because automation “solves real problems for operators.”
“We’re creating the makeline of the future. I think the potential is nearly endless,” he said. “Automated food systems can increase the bottom line for colleges and provide a field of inspiration and exploration for new food concepts that will ricochet out to the larger consumer market.”