The ZaBot Pizza Robot
The ZaBot Pizza Robot

ZaBot Pizza Robot is available 24/7 in the parking lot of Southfield-based Capri Pizza.

It’s 3 a.m. and you’re hungry, but all the restaurants are closed, and you don’t want to cook. No, you’re not out of luck. A new local option can give you a fresh, hot pizza and treats within 3-4 minutes — surely, the definition of quick and easy.

ZaBot Pizza Robot is available 24/7 in the parking lot of Southfield-based Capri Pizza. While the machine may strike some as odd, most users seem to agree with company CEO David Tessler that it’s actually a genius idea. He and business partner Paul Chambers launched ZaBot in early October and plan to offer many more.

The partners bought Capri, an independent New York-style pizzeria serving beer and wine, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020. Capri’s second owner since it started in 1960 was looking to retire after 25 years. Tessler, 40, of Beverly Hills said he wanted to own Capri “to preserve the recipes I love and keep it from becoming just another pizza chain.”

A labor shortage proved to be a challenge for the businessmen. Seeking to automate the kitchen, they became interested in purchasing robotic equipment after learning online about pizza-dispensing machines in Europe. It was an intriguing concept that hadn’t caught on yet in the United States.

Research revealed that Pizza Robotics is a cloud-connected platform that combines robotics and machine learning, allowing restaurants to operate autonomously. An example of a robot operating at full capacity stated that it can deliver customized pizzas in five minutes (or less), make 10 pizzas at the same time and allow one pizza to be dispensed every 47 seconds. A robot can cost upwards of $100,000.

Tessler said, “We fell in love with the design of the machine” they imported to become their first ZaBot.

The machine’s most important feature is that it uses two built-in pizza deck ovens. “Most pizza machines on the market use microwave or convection technology, which we felt compromised the quality of the product.”

Esther Allweiss Ingber receives her finished pizza from the machine.
Esther Allweiss Ingber receives her finished pizza from the machine. Esther Allweiss Ingber | Detroit Jewish News

According to the ZaBot website: “The two pizza ovens cook your pizza on the bottom and top, so you get perfect crust, tantalizing cheese and your choice of toppings — all in as little as three minutes.”

A group of chefs and consultants, including existing Capri Pizza staff, spent more than eight months developing and testing the ZaBot recipes. A third partner in the ZaBot company, formerly retired Ray Friedrich, brought 35 years of experience in the vending and corporate food service industry.

I decided to try ZaBot in November. After parking in Capri’s lot, I approached the large touchscreen on one side of a tall, cheerily decorated orange metal box. Touching the screen brought up the food options, including three styles of pizza: Pepperoni, Cheese and Veggie. “Meat Lovers” and “Capri Hawaiian-style” are newer options that might be stocked.

“We have some cool ones — like a breakfast pizza, Coney dog pizza and bean burrito pizza — that will be featured periodically in the ZaBots,” Tessler said. “We are having a lot of fun with the development process and plan to continue to innovate new and exciting food offerings.”

The screen I touched, before ordering what I wanted with my credit (could be a debit) card, also displayed pictures of two types of warm cookies from vending partner Gold Mountain Cookies (“one of our top-selling items”), as well as garlic cheese bread and soft pretzels.

Once an order is placed, the ZaBot goes to work. A label on the delivery box has a QR code matched to the customer’s desired item. The item is then pulled from its refrigerated holding slot.

The QR code also tells the robot how to cook the chosen item. Pizza is lifted onto its own tray and put into each of two ovens, getting an overall bake and a top broil. Other refrigerated items are cooked at their own optimal time and temperature. The finished pizza or snack item is placed in its box and dispensed through one of the robot’s two delivery slots. Depending on the type of food, each refrigerated item is good for three to five days before discarding.

It was exciting to anticipate the pepperoni and veggie pizzas I had ordered for my family. ZaBot displayed the digital time so I could see how soon before my order would be ready. I caught one pizza box when it flew out of the bottom delivery hatch; and a few moments later, I caught another box from the top slot. For fun, the boxes have outlines of pizza toppings that can be colored.

The thin-crust ZaBot pizzas and garlic bread are not pre-cut, but plastic knives for the purpose are found in a bin near the machine. The 10-inch round pizzas are enough for one-two people. At home, I quartered the pie with my own metal pizza cutter and took a slice from each pie. My vegetarian daughter and meat-eating husband got to eat three slices.

Both pizzas did their job, nicely filling our tummies. The pepperoni was properly crispy on the one. The veggie pizza was topped primarily with onion, mushrooms, banana peppers (which I do not like) and green pepper over mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. I hope more choice in the veggies is coming. The three of us judged these pizzas as either “good” or “kind of good.”

A Veggie Pizza
A Veggie Pizza Esther Allweiss Ingber | Detroit Jewish News

It is reassuring to know that Tessler and company are continuing to “work on all our products, striving for constant improvement.”

For example, after customer feedback, ZaBot re-engineered its cheese pizza so that “it now is one of our highest-rated products.” The team also is exploring different size pizzas and moving quickly toward offering more thick-crust “Detroit-style” pizzas. I would prefer that.

Sensing an unlimited potential for the pizza robots, the ZaBot partners intend to soon open a separate facility, away from Capri Pizza, to make its products.

“We have 10 locations (for ZaBots) that we will be rolling out in Metro Detroit,” said Tessler, before announcing that the next machine will be available soon at the Ambassador Bridge’s duty-free store, 3400 W. Fort St. in Detroit. The ZaBot company also has expansion plans for the Midwest and nationwide, starting later this year.

“It is not out of the question that there could be 500-1,000 ZaBots around the country within the next five years,” he said. Possible placements could include airports, stadiums, shopping malls, office buildings, K-12 schools and college campuses, small retail spaces, public parks, gas stations, convenience stores — “anywhere with hungry people.”

Always fond of pizza himself, Tessler said, “With all the testing and sampling we do, I probably eat pizza most days although it is usually just a bite or two. My kids enjoy Capri once a week and love visiting ZaBot as a special treat.

“We wanted to offer something that was relatable to all ages, especially kids, and I could not be happier with what we created.”

ZaBot Pizza Robot
at Capri Pizza
30735 Greenfield Road, Southfield
A ZaBot Pizza App is coming soon

David Tessler

David Tessler
David Tessler

Family: Wife, Meagan, daughter Harper, 7, and son Charlie, 4
Education: Graduate of Groves High School in Beverly Hills
Bar Mitzvah: Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park
Career: An entrepreneur who has owned and operated several successful businesses in Metro Detroit, Tessler helped develop gift kiosks for casinos and was part of a company that built a full point-of-sale system for golf courses.

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