A moneymaking idea during a labor shortage: invent a pizza robot with your friends

Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Stellar plans to begin rolling out its trucks to events in L.A. later this summer, once it gets its final approval the health department. In the meantime, the company is hosting pop-up events for its newsletter subscribers at its Hawthorne headquarters.

Stellar's planned price range of $7 to $10 for a 12-inch pie, depending on toppings, is comparable with pricing by Domino's or Pizza Hut, though the chains often are lower with coupon offers. But if the big incumbents start to go cheaper, Tsai said he'd "welcome a price war."

But first, he needs customers. The pizza itself is the product of two years of fine-tuning the recipe for both flavor and ease of automation. The final product has a thin crust, a mildly sweet sauce and can be ordered as a plain cheese pie, pepperoni, meatball, or with veggies (diced onions, green peppers, or olives).

Tsai started Stellar as a longtime pizza eater but first-time pizza entrepreneur — he said that the only American food allowed in his Taiwanese-American childhood home in Hacienda Heights, California, was pizza from the local pie shop. "I don't wanna rag on it, but it was called The World's Best Pizza," Tsai said. "I really liked it, but I actually don't think it's the world's best pizza."

Tsai had started his own company before working at SpaceX, and after five years at the rocket company, he wanted to set out on his own again — and focus on food.

His first thought was a boba robot. "I'm from Taiwan," Tsai says. "I wanted a boba vending machine."

But a little market research revealed that most Americans are still unfamiliar with the milk tea-tapioca ball combo. "Going to Missouri and trying to teach people how to drink this like, chewy button nugget" didn't seem like a good business model for his first startup, Tsai said.


Once he landed on the idea for Stellar, he and his team dove into pizza science, reading academic papers from Italian universities outlining the mathematical models of heat transfer from ovens to pizza dough, and theorizing on the outer limits of pizza cooking speed. "Given my background in chemical engineering, I thought it was amazing," Tsai said.

Then the company brought in Noel Brohner, the acclaimed pizza consultant behind Slow Rise Pizza Co., who's worked with elite L.A. chefs such as Evan Funke and Ori Menashe (of Felix Trattoria and Bestia, respectively), bigwigs such as Tom Hanks and Bob Iger who want to perfect their at-home pizza game, and big companies such as Google and Mod Pizza to fine-tune their recipes.

"When I started working with them, they had a warehouse with nothing in it. I have a better kitchen in my apartment in Santa Monica now," Brohner said. But when he first tried the pie that Tsai and his colleagues had cooked up based on their own research, "I was really impressed, and kind of shocked that a couple of rocket engineers could do so well for themselves even before I got brought in."

The dough presented the biggest challenges for automation, being a sticky matrix of yeast, water, and flour that shifts with time, temperature and humidity. Stellar makes its dough at its headquarters, then loads dough balls into the machine's refrigerator for a day's output. Typically, Brohner said, the mutability of dough requires human expertise to handle, roll out, and troubleshoot. "But if you've got lasers and video and photo and thermopens" sensing changes on the fly, as in Stellar's machine, he said "you can actually do a lot."

Brohner doesn't see Stellar as a threat to the high-end handmade pizza market, but a chance to get higher-quality pizza to the masses. "What I love about it is instead of having a labor cost close to 20, 30, even 40%, it's closer to 10%" Brohner said. "So what they're able to do is use much higher-quality ingredients" while keeping costs competitive with the big chains.

In an economy defined by a drum-tight labor market and growing inflation, Stellar is betting that combo will be almost as appealing as cheese and tomato sauce.

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