Worth It? We Tried Denver's First Pizza Vending Machine
And you can, too.
Here’s something you don’t see every day: a combination Irish pub and off-track betting parlor. But that’s what The Celtic on Market in LoDo is—stained-glass panels, decades-old furnishings, and an upright piano on the one hand; mounted TVs broadcasting the horse races and a bar doubling as a cash-out counter on the other. Here’s something else you don’t see every day: a pizza vending machine inside a combination Irish pub and off-track betting parlor. But there it stands at the entrance, a bright green-and-white contraption emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name, Basil Street.
I’m not much of a gambler myself, but if there’s one bet I’m willing to take, it’s on the universal excellence of pizza, so it was with eager curiosity that I bellied up to the machine, where a company representative was on hand to walk me patiently through the ordering process (rest assured: it’s pretty self-explanatory). The touch screen on the oven next to the freezer compartment listed a choice of three pies priced between $12 and $13: Pepperoni, Supreme, Meat Lover’s. Selecting the Pepperoni, I was able to view the nutritional information before I entered my payment method, then make note of the cooking time and temperature displayed on-screen. (Sadly, you can’t actually see the oven in action—that, in my opinion, would be a lot more entertaining than watching horses go in circles.) After a total of three minutes, out through a slot came my pizza on aluminum-covered cardboard, thin-crusted and layered with golden-brown cheese beneath a surprisingly generous amount of pepperoni cups. Using the branded, single-use plastic pizza cutter the representative handed me, I sliced it up and took a bite: crunchy edges, tangy and surprisingly fresh-tasting sauce, the meat blistered yet still juicy. Hey, not bad—not bad at all!
“When my partner pitched this [concept] to me, I thought it was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard,” Basil Street CEO Deglin Kenealy says with a laugh. “The vending machines I grew up with, you put your quarters in and your candy bar got stuck. I thought, ‘Why would anyone do this with pizza?’” But in a world where the Japanese can purchase flying-fish dashi and the Germans can get their sausage fix from a vending machine, he admits, “I realized, oh, they’ve changed a lot over the years.” What’s more, co-founder Roberto Villani is himself a pizzaiolo, which meant that “he knew pizza while I knew business. That collaboration is what made the magic work.”
Which isn’t to say the road from drawing board to launch was perfectly smooth. As Kenealy points out, “When you build a product, you never know how it’s going to work in the real world. We’ve made literally hundreds of changes to both hardware and software since we started our pilot program last year.” For instance, they placed one APK, or automated pizza kitchen, in a factory where “roughly a third of the workforce is Muslim, which eliminated pork as an option; at that location, we’ll use halal chicken.” Another unit went to a factory that operates 24/7; considering that “you might not want pepperoni at 3 am,” says Kenealy, “we have a breakfast pizza with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, peppers, and onion. And in locations with a larger female population, vegetarian and chicken options do well. We manage [things on the ground] differently to fit with what the consumers want.”
Basil Street’s long-term plan is to operate APKs nationwide in not only factories but also college dorms, airports, hospitals, military bases, amusement parks, convenience stores, and other places where hungry masses are constantly on the move. But the company chose the Celtic as its first official site for three reasons: One, the central downtown location ensures an endless flow of people who, come winter, might be a captive audience. “There’s gonna be this white stuff that comes down, and it gets hard,” says Kenealy, presumably referring to snow. “You don’t really want to walk three blocks to go out to dinner.” Two, apparently Denverites, as sentient and rational beings, enjoy pizza—like, a lot. Three, despite our passion for pie, we’re a relatively health-conscious bunch, and “our goal is to have a delicious pizza that you can feel good about,” Kenealy asserts. “If you want to make something taste good, you can add a bunch of sugar and salt, but our sauce is just four ingredients: crushed tomatoes, vine-ripened olive oil, a little salt, and basil.”
Speaking of fresh ingredients, perhaps the most critical decisions Kenealy and his team made in the R&D phase concerned consumer safety. “We made two choices that I believe are really important: The pizzas are flash-frozen, and they stay frozen until they go into the oven,” he notes. That method “maintains the nutrients of the vegetables better, and you can store them longer and keep them safer.” An oven that mimics a wood-fired hearth, heating the pizza more evenly than a radiant source would, further ensures peace of mind in the emerging automated-kitchen industry, which is still what Kenealy calls “a little bit of a wild, wild West” when it comes to regulation.
In that light, launching the Basil Street brand in Denver seems like a no-brainer: After all, this is a city that prides itself on maintaining its wild Western vibe in the face of rampant growth. And now we’ve got the vending-machine pizza to prove it.