A Burger Joint Where Robots Make Your Food
When he was 9 years old, Alex Vardakostas started working at his parents’ fast-food restaurant in southern California, where he experienced firsthand the mindless repetition of flipping burgers. “Let’s be honest, it’s not the culmination of the human spirit,” said Vardakostas, now 33. His experience led him to a career in robotics; with machines, he hoped to automate the most menial tasks, freeing people up for more creative pursuits.
On June 27, he and Steven Frehn, a mechanical engineer, will open Creator, a San Francisco burger shop where a robot preps, cooks and assembles your meal. Creator is betting that robotic efficiency and consistency, combined with techniques borrowed from Michelin-star chefs, will lead to a better burger—for the relatively affordable price of $6.
The restaurant is designed with the muted colors and clean lines of a luxury home-goods store. All the better to focus on the real stars: two 14-foot-long burger-making machines, each comprised of roughly 7,000 parts, including hundreds of sensors. Buns, tomatoes, onions, pickles, seasonings and sauces are stored in clear tubes, which sit over a copper conveyor belt on a wooden base carved into Zaha-Hadid-style swooping lines. Each machine costs under $1 million, Vardakostas said, and prepares up to 120 burgers an hour. (Vardakostas said he expects to improve the machines’ speed over time.)
Customers will order through a mobile app, with human “burger consultants” on hand to offer assistance. (Initially, these employees will also guide customers through the app, which won’t be available to download at the launch.) All burgers will be cooked medium when the restaurant opens; eventually, patrons will be able to customize their burgers’ doneness and seasoning. They’ll also have their pick of more than a dozen sauces—sunflower tahini, smoked oyster aioli, ballpark mustard—created with the oversight of local chefs Nick Balla and Tu David Phu and Pilot R + D, a culinary research and development firm.
Once an order is placed, air pressure pushes a brioche roll from La Boulangerie, a local bakery, through a tube. The robot slices, toasts and butters the bun to order, drops it onto a leaf-shaped tray and dollops it with carefully calibrated amounts of sauce. Different components slice tomatoes, pickles and onions, shred the lettuce and grate the cheese. The robot also grinds the meat—a blend of pasture-raised chuck and brisket—to order. A specialized mechanical grip packs the patty loosely —so much so that, in human hands, it would break apart before reaching the grill. The light handling keeps the grain of the meat aligned, a texture-enhancing technique borrowed from three-Michelin-star chef Heston Blumenthal. Once the patty is done—thermal sensors and an algorithm determine the temperature and the cooking time—a robotic arm drops the meat onto the bun. Patrons pick up their orders at the counter when their names appear on a screen. The process takes about five minutes.
Automation did not come easily. One of the most difficult tasks was ensuring the robot could determine the correct doneness of the patty without the advantage of human touch and sight, Vardakostas said. “It’s pretty different to eyeballing,” he said.
Vardakostas started developing his prototype in 2009, after earning a B.S. in physics from the University of California Santa Barbara. Two years later, Vardakostas had a model he describes as clunky but good enough to earn him funding. Over the ensuing years, he moved to the Bay Area, partnered with Frehn and hired 40 staffers. By 2017, he had raised $18 million, Business Insider reported, from backers like Alphabet’s Google and Khosla Ventures, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture capital firm. (Varkadostas disputed the total but declined to say how much he’d raised.)
Creator isn’t the first fast-casual eatery to automate its kitchen. Flippy, a robotic assistant that flips burgers alongside human cooks, debuted in March at a Pasadena, Calif., restaurant. The machine was temporarily taken offline so its inventor, Miso Robotics, could improve its speed and ensure it met California’s new commercial-kitchen standards, a spokesperson said. At San Francisco’s Café X, robot baristas serve lattes. Eatsa’s automated restaurant platform allows for picking up a lunch bowl with zero human interaction (the San Francisco-based restaurant’s cooks are hidden in the kitchen). None of these concepts is in wide distribution. Eatsa grew to seven locations before scaling back to two in 2017 so it could focus on selling its technology platform to restaurants.
The Creator burger may have come off an assembly line, but nothing about the final product suggested mass production. PHOTO: AUBRIE PICK
While Creator may initially draw the robot-curious, it’s an open question what happens when the novelty wears off, said Brendan Witcher, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based market-research firm. “Watching a robot make a burger is cute,” he said, “but how does that process add value?”
Ultimately, a restaurant lives and dies by the food that comes out of the kitchen. I tried five different styles, including Vardakostas’ favorite, dressed in “Pacific sauce,” a tangy and sweet dressing that incorporates umeboshi plum and mole. The bun was light and egg-y but not heavily toasted. The burger may have come off an assembly line, but nothing about the final product suggested mass production. The toppings were remarkably crisp and fresh; the meat was rich and flavorful with a nicely caramelized exterior from the fully automated grill. It was, in short, the best $6 burger I’ve ever had.