Surprisingly, two of the biggest stories out of this years’ Consumer Electronics Show (CES) weren’t about TVs or drones, they were about… food.

On the one hand, you had Impossible impressing with its new meatless burger. And tucked away in the South Hall of the convention center, a bread-making robot was busy baking loaves and grabbing headlines.

BreadBot is basically a mini-bakery that can autonomously make just about any type of dough-based bread (white, wheat, sourdough, etc.). BreadBot makes 10 loaves of fresh bread an hour that consumers take home basically straight out of the oven.

After seeing the BreadBot in action, we knew we wanted them to participate at Articulate, our upcoming food robotics and automation conference in San Francisco. Randall Wilkinson, CEO of Wilkinson Baking Company, the company behind the BreadBot, will in fact be speaking at Articulate. Before he takes the stage, though here’s a recent Q&A The Spoon did with him that will give you a sneak peek at (some of) what he’ll be talking about at the show. (The Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.)

THE SPOON: What is the BreadBot go-to market strategy? How do you see it being deployed?
RANDALL WILKINSON: We see a number of different areas that the BreadBot would fit into. Clearly the greatest volume of bread in the country and worldwide is sold in grocery and retail, and that is our strategy. We have three of the top five grocers in the U.S. that will be starting pilot test projects in the second quarter of 2019. In those stores BreadBot will typically be an installation in the perimeter of the store to engage the customer to give them the fresh bread they are looking for. But foodservice delivers a lot of bread in all sorts of institutions (airlines, etc.), also the military. The U.S. Navy was one of our first customers, using it for service the sailors and soldiers.

What are the advantages of using Breadbot? What is your pitch?
The most important thing for a retailer is that they provide what the customer wants. And forever what the customer has wanted fresh bread at a reasonable cost. More recently, the awareness of the use of preservatives, artificial ingredients, etc., have been a concern and so the healthiness of bread has been important. That includes the concern over the sugar that is added to bread unnecessarily to compensate for the lack of freshness. And there are also concerns that the consumer has about supporting local production, and not congesting the highways with trucking things in and the environmental impact that those things have. So all of those are concerns that consumers have.

But at its core, [consumers] want a lot of taste for value. And so BreadBot first of all delivers on the consumer’s desire for fresh bread, and the engagement of being able to transparently see their bread being made, to take home the loaf of bread they saw come right out of the oven, to engage in the store with the aroma and the tactile senses of taking your own warm loaf home. The halo of that sort of thing extends to the whole store and so stores are very much interested in that.

All of those are good reasons for a store [get a BreadBot], but what makes BreadBot even more compelling for a retailer is that the production in the store eliminates the distribution costs of the light fluffy loaves from central factories to the thousands of store shelves, which turns out to be a very expensive thing to do for merchant bakers. And if you do that production at the store, you save a lot on the production and distribution of that bread and that either becomes dramatically higher profits for the store or a more competitive position for the store being able to sell a premium loaf of ultimately fresh bread at a lower cost than the competition.

The BreadBot was a hit at CES. It seems like, pardon the pun, theatricality is baked into the BreadBot, so you want this to be front of the house for people to see?
Yes, absolutely. All of the grocers we’re talking with are facing the challenge of engaging their shoppers. What reason is there to come to the store when they can order online? So the stores are very much interested in what they can do to delight and engage their shoppers.

You know, bread has been dying or stagnant category for retail for decades. And the casual observer would think that for us coming to CES with an announcement about bread would be just about as ho-hum and unremarkable and announcement as one can imagine. Instead, what we had was an announcement that went viral. We think that the reason is not that people have given up on bread, but what they had given up on was that center-aisle bread that had been baked how many days ago and has no real punch or life or pizzazz to it. Knowing that they now have the opportunity to go into their grocer and pick a loaf of bread literally out of the oven apparently was really exciting to millions of people.

When building the BreadBot, how do you combine the art and science of bread making, when designing a robot like this?
The reason that this has never been done before — and we have the patents and intellectual property surrounding it — is that it’s hard. Anybody who’s tried to make bread knows what that means, because you take someone and you give them a recipe and you take three cups of this two teaspoons of that, you mix it up put it in the pan and you take it out of the oven and whoa, this didn’t come out the way grandma made it. So it’s a nuanced production that depends on the age of yeast, conditions yeast was stored under, the ambient temperature, ambient humidity, all of these different things and more. It is typically not something that a machine has the sophistication to do. In fact, we had to mothball the project for years because the sensors, and the kinds of things we needed weren’t available yet, and it’s only recently that they’ve become available.

What we’re now able to do is to monitor on an ongoing basis all of these different parameters and then on the fly continually adjust to changing conditions and whatever is needed to bring about that optimal loaf of bread. It’s a self-adjusting intelligent production system.

What is your favorite fictional robot?
I’ll have to go with Wall-E. He was trying to save people from themselves. In our own way, we think bread ought to be healthier than what it is. We ought to be improving the quality of bread that people get, and helping people end up on the right side of healthy food.

Robots and automation are coming to the food industry, and Articulate is an entire day devoted to the technological and societal implications of these impending changes. Check out our stellar lineup of speakers, get your ticket, and join the conversation at Articualte, April 16 in San Francisco.

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