Cover photo

The $375m slice

In Robbinsville New Jersey, just outside Trenton, there's a pizzeria that has embodied the essence of the American dream for 100 years.

Founded in 1912 by Giuseppe "Joe" Papa, an Italian immigrant with a passion for food, Papa's Tomato Pies has been serving up piping hot, comforting Pizza for over a century. From its humble beginnings on South Clinton Avenue to its current location, the family-owned establishment has passed from one generation to the next, each dedicated to preserving its forebears' legacy while adapting to its customers' tastes and demands.

Long before the rise of national chains and online ordering apps, Papa's delivered its famous tomato pies to hungry customers across Trenton. By the 1950s, the Pizzeria was catering to late-night workers and bar patrons, staying open until 3 am to ensure everyone could get their fix of the Trenton-style tomato pie, with its thin crust, gooey cheese, and tangy crushed tomato sauce.

Papa's Tomato Pies is a study of the resilience, ingenuity, and hard work that have long been the hallmarks of America's entrepreneurial spirit. A family took a chance, pouring their hearts and souls into a business that would become a livelihood and a way of life for generations. Through the Great Depression, two World Wars, the Moon landing, the invention of the Internet, and countless economic ups and downs, Papa's has remained a constant presence in the lives of Trentonians.

It's the best the United States has to offer - the idea that anyone can build something lasting and meaningful with hard work, determination, and a bit of moxie.

But to Silicon Valley, an institution like Papa's is quaint, old-fashioned, and obsolete. When disruption is everything, when each new startup promises to revolutionize some mundane aspect of our daily lives, the idea of a family pizzeria doing things the same way for a century and change is positively anachronistic. It's no wonder that the tech industry, in its relentless quest for - checks notes - innovation, eventually came up with the brilliant idea of reinventing Pizza. 

Founded in 2015, Zume's vision was quintessentially and hilariously Silicon Valley-esque in its scope: to utterly revolutionize the traditional pizza delivery model through cutting-edge robotics. A brave new world of pies, algorithmically triaged and prepared to mechanical perfection, baked en route to the customer's door in GPS-enabled ovens. It seemed almost too good to be true. And as Alex Garden and Julia Collins, the ambitious founders of Zume Pizza, would slowly come to learn, it was.

For reasons that are clear to some and may never be apparent in the light of common sense, Zume's promise electrified the startup scene: a company that would somehow change the world, one pepperoni slice at a time. Investors lined up to get a piece of the action. The tech luminaries at SignalFire and Yahoo legend Jerry Yang anted up $6 million in Series A funding in 2016, but that proved to be just an appetizer. 

The main course arrived in 2017 with a staggering $48 million Series B round, followed by a massive $375 million investment from SoftBank's Vision Fund in 2018 - yes, the same SoftBank crew that thought WeWork was a brilliant idea, to the tune of $16 billion. 

Suddenly, Zume was the talk of the Valley, sporting a $2.25 billion valuation and aiming to expand its technological pizza magic to encompass the entire realm of food delivery and beyond. They were determined to disrupt (that word again) not just Pizza but all cooking as we know it.

But while investment money flowed, Trouble Was Brewing™. The core technology, so dazzling in theory, was proving devilishly hard to master in practice. Robots could spread sauce and slice pies with precision, but the all-important cheese wouldn't play along. It would slide off with distressing regularity during deliveries and turn "the perfect pizza" into sloppy disappointments. 

Zume's solution was to park its once-mobile kitchens in central locations, relying on human drivers to take the finished products that last crucial mile. 

Take a moment to let that sink in. 

Static kitchens. 

With humans delivering Pizza. 

Something Papa's had been doing in New Jersey since 1912 without spending hundreds of millions of dollars on R&D.

For all its high-tech wizardry, Zume was learning the hard way that Pizza is a deceptively simple product that rests on a delicate balance of timing, temperature, technique, and—above all—taste. Mastering those fundamentals would require more than clever engineering and bucketloads of venture capital.

As reality began to diverge from Zume's lofty vision, the company made a dramatic shift, moving away from entirely pizza delivery to focus on sustainable food packaging.

From making Pizza in robotic vans, to becoming a pizza delivery store, to making boxes with no pizza. 

It acquired Pivot Packaging and set about crafting compostable containers, hoping a more eco-friendly approach would help salve the wounds of its robot-pizza misadventures. But once again, reality proved a harsh mistress.

Despite the strategic shift, Zume's financial woes continued to mount. Layoffs claimed half the workforce in 2020, with the pizza operation the first casualty. The company gamely soldiered on, but the momentum had irrevocably shifted. In 2023, the once high-flying startup finally succumbed to the inexorable pull of gravity, shutting its doors for good and leaving behind a cautionary tale strewn with scorched pizza boxes and melted cheese.

Why pick over the scraps now? Why write this piece?

Zume—and its enablers, including and particularly SoftBank—are a classic example of the blind tech optimism that has become emblematic of Silicon Valley's culture—a culture that values flash over substance, disruption over understanding, and hype over hard-earned insight. 

A culture that is intent on leaving the same flaming bags of shit on the doorstep of our society over and over again. 

A culture attempting to apply the same ideas that didn't work in the production of Pizza to Artificial Intelligence. 

A culture that never seems to learn. 

The easy lessons here might be that startups are hard, failure stings, and, well, something-something-Man-in-the-Arena. So it goes.

But the more profound lesson is that tech's obsession with disruption at all costs is a failed ideology. 

Silicon Valley has long fetishized the notion of the game-changing startup, exemplified by the law-breaking, worker-abusing, money-burning Uber. It's spawned a culture of hype and hubris, where pursuing the next big thing overshadows the painstaking work of bringing a product that people love to the market. The idea is that disruption itself - changing how the world works—is enough to forgive all sins. 

There is a fine line between vision and delusion, and in the Valley's hothouse, it can be all too easy to cross it. When you're sitting on hundreds of millions in funding and basking in the adoration of the tech faithful, the temptation to double down on your hype can be overwhelming.

Robot-enabled pizza logistics are (presumably) hard. But that's not why Zume failed. They failed because, unlike New Jersey's first Pizzeria, neither Zume nor their investors actually understood food. In their rush to disrupt, to prove that they were the future, Zume's leaders and funders either lost sight of the humbler realities of running a food service business - the myriad tiny details and unforgiving margins that can make or break a kitchen - or were too arrogant and blind to see it in the first damn place. 

The best consumer products are rooted in tradition, in the timeless values of home, community, and craftsmanship that have sustained businesses like Papa's for generations. For all its technological prowess and capital, Zume couldn't match the authenticity or soul of a pizza made by human hands.

None of this is to say that we should abandon the quest for innovation or that there's no place in the world for bold, even outlandish ideas. But there's little in the way of universe-denting in pursuing an agenda of bankrupting small restaurants with slightly more frictionless Pizza. VCs might argue that software will eat the world, but that doesn't necessarily equate to software producing Pizza that the world wants to eat. 

Perhaps—just perhaps—we need a bit more humility, a bit more respect for the unsexy work that actually keeps the world humming, Mom and Pop pizza stores included.

This is a long way of saying - yes, it may be "just pizza." But in pizza-making, as in business, success doesn't come from lofty gimmicks and inflated pitch decks. It comes from learning to make a good pizza, one slice at a time.

Not to draw too long a bow, but…

Extrapolate for the AI bubble.

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