For robot startups seeking to make a splash at CES, there are a few options: holding a large press conference, making it weird and creepy, or serving cocktails. However, one method stands out above the rest for drawing in crowds: wafting the aroma of freshly baked bread (aka ‘the Subway method‘).
That’s what the folks behind the Wilkinson Baking Company did back in 2019, and the end result was their robot, the Breadbot, became a sensation that year at the world’s largest tech event. The smell of fresh bread pulled in journalists, tech nerds, and passersby like a tractor beam, garnering the type of press that big budget brands like Samsung would envy.
The small Eastern Washington-based company, co-founded by brothers Randall and Ron Wilkinson, has been working diligently to bring their product to market since then. Their goal was to transition from a working prototype to a production-ready machine suitable for grocery stores.
As part of the transition, the company also looked to find a new CEO. The Wilkinson brothers, both in their late sixties, wanted a CEO that could take the early-stage startup from a small LLC with a big idea to one that was mature enough to raise funding and bring the first product to market. Paul Rhynard, a former strategy consultant for McKinsey who also had experience raising capital as Chief Strategy Officer for Russell Investments, stepped in for Randall in April of last year and has since helped raise a seed round of $3 million last summer to fund the build-out of the company’s first production run of robots.
According to Rhynard, the new robot was built after testing the early prototype in a small grocery store in Eastern Washington.
“The machine that was at CES has been dramatically updated,” Rhynard told The Spoon. “One of the key differences is we rebuilt the brain of it. We have fully custom chipboards and a custom tech stack that run the machine. It was a huge update from a control and software standpoint of actually operating the machine.”
The company also made significant upgrades to the mechanical system, including adding four hoppers instead of one, which allows the Breadbot to make four varieties of bread throughout the day. The new Breadbot has significant updates to how it bakes and measures bread quality which, according to Rhynard, allows the machine to achieve more consistent results.
“So now we have a machine that we can scale up and start to place in grocers around the country,” said Rhynard.
And that’s what they’re starting to do. The company built 20 robots and so far has placed seven of them in different grocery chains which include Super One Foods, which is operating a Breadbot in a store in Northern Idaho and two more in Montana, and last month the company installed a Breadbot at Akins Fresh Market in eastern Washington. Three more Breadbots are set to be installed in a high-end Milwaukee, Wisconsin grocery retailer this month.
Rhynard says the company’s business model is a lease-plus-fee model, where grocers pay a monthly fee and a small amount per loaf baked. In return, Breadbot provides a turnkey solution, which includes providing bread mix, yeast, bread bags, and ongoing maintenance.
In return, grocers get what is essentially a bakery in a box that sits in full view of the customers on the store floor. The machine, which can produce up to 200 loaves a day, can produce bread throughout the day, with each loaf taking about 96 minutes from start to finish to make a loaf. In the stores it is currently operating, the Breadbot is making three varieties of bread: Nine grain, homestyle, and honey oat.
According to Rhynard, early on stores aligned the baking of the bread with the hours of the baking staff, which meant the Breadbot baked all the bread in the morning. Now, he says, some stores are going to start experimenting with baking bread during peak shopping hours, from four to seven at night, which will allow shoppers to buy hot, freshly made bread (and take in that fresh-baked bread smell).
Rhynard says that while grocery stores are their key target customer, they are also having talks with other potential types of customers, including cafeterias and the military. The company is also talking to potential customers in places where fresh-baked bread is difficult to come by, including Hawaii, which imports the vast majority of its bread from the US west coast.
To fund further growth, Rhynard said the company is now starting to look to raise a Series A. He knows it will be challenging given the current state of the market, but he’s optimistic the company’s current traction will attract new backers.
For now, though,the company is busy finding new customers looking to pull in shoppers with the smell of freshly baked robot bread.