Is high-tech pizza better pizza? This Russian startup is betting on it.

By Gowri Chandra
November 05, 2019

Everything about Dodo Pizza seems improbable.

The fact that the global franchise was born in a tiny town in Russia, well north of Helsinki. The fact that a pizza chain could lead Russia’s largest crowdfunding campaign to date. And the fact that it was among the first to pull off pizza drone delivery (for actual customers, not just on video) in 2014. The feat, which was covered by international media, ended with the Russian police coming to founder Fyodor Ovchinnikov’s garage laboratory to fine him 50,000 rubles ($1500) for disturbing the peace, according to the company

Courtesy of Dodo Pizza

Eight years since its founding, the startup world keeps talking about Dodo. Bloomberg profiled it in October. Ovchinnikov has been called the “Steve Jobs of pizza.” Its two U.S. locations—both in and around Memphis, Tennessee—seem to be doing pretty well (there are over 500 worldwide). Even those who eye-roll Silicon Valley’s “food as tech” gospel might find Dodo's tech impressive. 

Dodo’s IT platform, for example, tracks how long pizza slices have been out on the counter—and shows that info to customers in real time. The slices are deeply discounted after 45 minutes, and they’re thrown out after an hour. (The chain also uses ingredients that have almost never been frozen.)

For all of Wendy’s touchscreen kiosks and McDonald’s billions towards mobile delivery, Ovchinnikov has been able to bake in Dodo’s tech from the start—rather than sprinkling it on afterwards. The result is a mobile platform that provides incredible detail, and therefore transparency, to both owners and consumers. It started with Ovchinnikov’s manager-facing mobile app, which provides managers a way to track food production.

Dodo Pizza in downtown Moscow.

Courtesy of Dodo Pizza

Weekly sales information across all stores, for example, is public. Financials are published on a monthly basis. Stores are publicly ranked on quality and cleanliness. Epic fails are fair game.

“A guest in Astrakhan found a piece of a finger nail in his pizza,” Ovchinnikov wrote in a blog post. “In Smolensk, a driver was drunk while making a delivery. In Naberezhnye Chelny, a customer had to wait for his order for… eight hours. I wish all that happened in places that didn’t provide their services under the name of Dodo Pizza. But they did. No point in hiding it.”

There are very few brands who would self-publish this information—let alone promote it in a blog post penned by the CEO. But that’s what makes Dodo different. And, paradoxically, popular.

“When your organization performs thousands of operations a day, people sometimes mess up,” Ovchinnikov goes on to write. “Things happen.” By acknowledging errors, Ovchinnikov seems to not only earn customer trust, but more effectively motivate restaurants to self-correct.

Customers can also see detailed history reports of a location’s delivery times. “...[W]hen I checked our pizzerias in different cities, I was ashamed for Dodo Pizza in Yaroslavl,” Ovchinnikov wrote in another blog post, earlier this year. “They deliver in 59 minutes on average (!), and their rating is rather low, as far as we’re concerned. And I’m proud for 50 pizzerias in Moscow with the average delivery time of 37 minutes, which is good for such a complex megalopolis, though we definitely could do much better.” While these numbers are currently only available for Russian stores, Ovchinnikov has said that he plans to roll this out worldwide.

Perhaps the most compelling item of transparency is that literally anyone can see inside any location, at any time. Thanks to webcams automatically streaming during business hours, you can take a look inside the Oxford, Mississippi, kitchen right now.

If you find this both cool and creepy, you’re not alone.

In October, a Portland-area Outback Steakhouse got pushback after it announced it would be rolling out AI to closely monitor staff and diner behavior. Cameras would be installed to keep tabs on wait times, how often a server checked in on a table, and even how quickly water glasses were filled. (Outback insisted it wouldn’t be using facial recognition AI to identify consumers, thereby protecting their privacy.) Still, after Wired broke the story, Eater reported that the restaurant quickly reneged on the plan.

Max Kotin, Dodo’s global communications director, gets the concerns. He tells Food & Wine that the cameras came about to mimic the open kitchen concept, but for delivery-only customers.

Courtesy of Dodo Pizza

“When you walk in a restaurant with an open kitchen and see how your meal is being made, it makes you trust the food,” he says. “I think nobody will question the concept of an open kitchen in a high-end restaurant, and nobody would say that an open kitchen violates workers' privacy.”

He also acknowledges the problems. “Now with the rise of AI and lots of reasonable concerns about face recognition we understand that changes should be made to our policy,” he says, “even though we don't record the video feeds and in most cases the webcams are pointed at countertops from above and you can hardly make out any people's faces. Still, we're looking into ways to improve our solution—by introducing technology that will blur faces in real-time, for example.”

This question of how to create transparency—without compromising privacy or exploiting workers—is a big one. It’s an answer the food industry doesn’t have yet. But a company who openly admits that, at least, is perhaps ahead of the pack.

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