ST. PETERSBURG — What does ATM pizza taste like? I had to find out.
I’m not usually one for automated technology replacing human interactions, especially when it involves my meals. But when a colleague tipped me off that Ferg’s Sports Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg had started selling pizzas out of an ATM machine, my interest was piqued.
Ferg’s owner Mark Ferguson installed the bright red pizza-vending contraption in early February. He purchased the machine from Cincinnati-based company Pizza ATM, which sources the products from France and distributes them stateside.
The company has sold roughly a dozen Pizza ATM machines in the U.S., the majority at college and university campuses. But Ferg’s is the first bar or restaurant in the country to purchase one.
The idea seems straightforward enough: pizza, delivered out of an ATM machine, 24 hours a day. Guests order using a touch-screen system, and four minutes later out pops a cardboard box full of hot, cheesy pizza.
Pizza ATM sells the machines only — the buyer comes up with the pizza recipe on their own. In Ferg’s case, the pies are made by executive chef and general manager John Currier and his kitchen team.
Once prepped, the 12-inch pies are pre-sliced and placed inside the refrigerated machine, which stores them until a hungry customer passes by and orders one. The pizzas (which currently include cheese and pepperoni) are then heated and popped out of a slot, not unlike an old Blockbuster kiosk.
Patrons can either pay for the pizza with their credit card, by scanning a QR code, or through a number of mobile payment applications, including Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay.
The machines are costly: Including shipping and some upgrades, Ferguson spent $72,000. But he’s hoping the investment will help alleviate some of the ongoing staffing issues facing his business.
“For the last few months, and during football games, we couldn’t get enough kitchen help,” Ferguson said. “We’ve got three kitchens but have been running with one. When we get packed, we have to shut the kitchen down.”
The kiosks are touted as high-volume moneymakers: Each vending machine can fit 136 12-inch pizzas, and up to eight pizzas can be baked at the same time. At $10 per pie, a fully stocked ATM can bring in $1,360. Ferg’s profits $6 for every $10 pizza, so the return on investment for a fully loaded ATM is about $816.
Because the ATM serves pies 24 hours a day, food sales can be recorded around the clock, even after the bar’s kitchen closes at 9 p.m. Ferguson is banking on Central Avenue’s foot traffic and predicts the majority of his sales will occur after hours — courtesy of local bargoers and residents at nearby apartments with a case of the munchies.
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So what does ATM pizza actually taste like?
No big surprises here: It tastes like a pretty average pizza.
When I sampled one of the pepperoni pies recently, it was extra cheesy (a selling point for me) with a good sauce-to-cheese-to-crust ratio. Temperature-wise, the pizza was perfect: no burning the top of your mouth with scorching melted cheese or piping hot sauce. And for $10, it seemed like a pretty good deal.
The only thing I wasn’t sold on was the crust, which was thin and floppy, and not in that good, New York slice kind of way.
Would I order it again? Probably not. There’s better pizza to be had in this town. But you never know: A few beers in, late at night, with limited options? I wouldn’t rule it out.
Alec Verlin, the president and founder of Pizza ATM, launched the business back in 2015 after witnessing the success of similar manufacturers in Europe. In France, pizza vending machines had been around for the better part of two decades, but the trend hadn’t caught on in the U.S.
The base cost for one of the ATMs is $59,000, but there are additional bells and whistles that can increase the price tag, depending on what the business in question is looking for. Ferguson’s vending machine was more expensive because it’s a standalone option that can be placed outside the restaurant.
Are ATM machines going to start sweeping the American pizza market? Not necessarily, Verlin said.
American consumers might not be the ideal customer base: Diners craving a midnight pizza are more likely to pay a few extra dollars for the convenience of having food delivered to their front door through a third-party app, a pandemic habit that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
In France, the kiosks have been met with much more success, Verlin said, likely due to the pedestrian nature of so many cities there. Home delivery services that tack on pricey delivery and service charges haven’t really caught on as they have in the U.S., he said.
Still, Verlin sees potential for cities with similar walking-friendly environments, and St. Petersburg just might be one of them.
Ferguson certainly thinks so.
Since installing the vending machine, the reception has been great, he said.
Within six weeks, Ferguson said he profited roughly $3,000. He hopes he’ll be able to recoup his losses and start turning a profit on the pizzas in roughly a year and a half.
“With COVID-19 and everything else, we think it’s going to be well worth it,” he said.