Food automation company Mezli began as a problem for three graduate students — where to find quality, inexpensive food?
“We were all grad students at Stanford, and this was kind of a personal problem,” said co-founder and CEO Alex Kolchinski. “What am I going to eat today? Because either you can cook for yourself, or you can go to Chipotle and pay like ten or fifteen bucks for lunch or dinner, or go to the standard dining halls. Or you can go to McDonald’s and pay like five bucks, but for something that is going to make you feel terrible.”
Kolchinski and co-founder Alex Gruebele were studying software and robotics, and began talking about the use of robots in food production. They became curious about the idea and started to ask questions within the food and robotics industries. They wanted to understand why it was so difficult to produce and sell quality, inexpensive prepared food.
The two college students quickly realized that the standard brick-and-mortar restaurant was expensive. A huge amount of money was needed to renovate, maintain and operate a physical location. They thought that prefabricated containers would be a better way, because the facility could be automated. The entire unit would be built from the ground up around automated food production.
Thinking they had a business idea, Kolchinski and Gruebele eventually brought in aerospace engineer Max Perham as a founder and Eric Minnich as the chef. Mezli was formed. The idea was accepted into the Y Combinator, which provides seed money for startups. The incubator has helped launch notable companies in the food space like DoorDash and Instacart.
With a small amount of funding, the team developed a Mediterranean bowl-based menu and built an automated food production facility out of a shipping container. It was installed at a ghost kitchen in San Mateo, Calif., in early 2020.
More pickup orders than delivery
The food is centered on rice bowls with various meats and vegetables. Customers order on a web app. Currently, humans put the food together “using the same process as the robot.” The prototype has been certified, but the company is still in the process of integrating the automated system into the ghost kitchen’s operation.
Mezli recently started testing delivery from the third-party delivery companies, but Kolchinski does not believe delivery will become a major part of the business. People are looking for value when they buy a bowl.
“We have more pick-up volume right now, because, I mean, our price point is really low,” Kolchinski said. “We start at like five bucks. So the thing is, you can pick it up yourself for five bucks or you can pay five bucks plus the seven-dollar delivery fee to have it delivered.”
The early feedback from customers has been positive, Kolchinski said.
“People are stoked about the convenience of the food,” Kolchinski said. “They’re stoked about the price point, and the quality of the food.”
Building a fully automated model
He would not say exactly how much volume the test-model is doing, but did say “we’re doing food truck levels of volume right now.” The team is developing the next version of the automated restaurant and hopes to install it in a shopping center parking lot or outside an office building. The next version will be fully automated. The facility will dispense the food into a locker after the machine prepares the food.
“You’ll order on your phone or computer or touchscreen on the side of the auto kitchen, and then it’ll take a couple of minutes for your order to get made, and then you’ll pick it up from the smart lockers,” Kolchinski said.
He hopes to have the next version of the facility operational in the middle of 2022. He figures the initial design and rollout will take two to four years.
Mezli plans on developing other concepts besides the Mediterranean bowl. Kolchinski envisions a chain of shipping container automated restaurants across the region but acknowledged that the engineering and production process is slow. It takes time to design and program the robots and construct the facilities. The team wants to make sure everything works perfectly before rolling the entire concept out into the public.
He is confident that despite the high startup costs and the low price point, the concept can make money. The volume of orders does not have to be that high for the facilities to make money, Kolchinski said. The main costs, once the facility is operational, are delivering the food to the location and ongoing maintenance of the machines.
“We think this could actually be kind of on every corner, but that remains to be seen,” Kolchinski said.