As order kiosks replace cashiers in McDonald's and other "Fight for $15" fast-food restaurants, a restaurant startup that's opening in San Francisco next week will feature what would be a milestone in the history of food service (and also the latest sign that robots are about to take over far more fast-food jobs): On June 27, the restaurant will become the first to serve burgers cooked and assembled by a robot. According to Bloomberg, the burger will be assembled and cooked in a machine that contains 20 computers, 350 sensors, and 50 actuator mechanisms - and zero human interference, other than having somebody present to hand the finished burger to customers.
The company, called Creator, was founded by entrepreneur Alex Vardakostas in 2012. The 33-year-old has had experiencing working in burger restaurants since he was young; growing up in Southern California, his family owned the A's Burgers chain, as well as several other restaurants. Building a robot to build a more efficient burger has always been a source of fascination for Vardakostas, who started construction of what he calls "the burger robot" in his parent's garage back in 2010. Since then, he has been working to assemble a dream team of engineers, robotics experts and chefs to help him finish the machine and round out the concept. He's also raised at least $18 million in venture funding from Google ventures and other sources.
Building the burger robot was always something Vardakostas has always wanted to do.
"When you make 400 of the same burger every day, you can’t help but think, 'How would I make this experience better?'" he said.
Creator's first restaurant will be located at 680 Folsom St., in San Francisco's trendy SoMa neighborhood, one of "San Francisco's top 5 priciest neighborhoods". Food costs at the restaurant are unusually high, amounting to roughly 40% of the sticker price of the burger. But Vardakostas said his company saves money on labor thanks to the machine, allowing it to spend more on ingredients. The way the machine is designed allows it to fit in a more compact area than would typically be needed for a burger restaurant's kitchen, allowing restaurants to also save on space.
There are about 40 people on the team, with about nine employees working during opening hours, estimates Vardakostas, a lower number of staffers than at a burger place. There’s also the design. Because so much of the work is done by the machine, typical burger production space is freed up for seating. "It costs about $1.5 million on average to build a McDonald’s. The machine is way less than that," says Vardakostas. Creator has plans to roll it out into other cities (Vardakostas wants to go into urban areas that aren’t as super-affluent as San Francisco, such as Stockton, where he perceives a market for high-quality, affordable burgers) as well as venues like airport terminals, train stations, stadiums, and universities. "The machine gives us the architecture freedom to make this kind of experience all over. Doesn’t smell like burgers."
The machine allows customers to watch nearly all of the preparation process - except for the grinding of the meat (Creator's patties are ground fresh while the burgers are cooked to order). The setup is ideal for sharing fast-motion videoclips on Instagram or Snapchat.
The machine in action is a made for fast-motion video. First the brioche travels across the chute, pushed by a wooden block (and air pressure). It then shimmies down a chute as it’s sliced, toasted, and deposited in a leaf-shaped, custom-made container. Traveling along the copper-colored conveyor belt, it lands under the sauce spigots—there are around eight on offer, including barbecue, onion jam, shiitake mushroom, and ballpark mustard. Next are the sweet pickles, tomatoes, and onions—sliced to order, they land in slow motion on the bun. Shredded lettuce follows, then cheese—mild or smoked Cheddar and grated to enhance the melting potential. At the end of the line are large tubes of seasoning, including alderwood smoked salt, sprinkled on the griddled 4-ounce burger before the patty lands on the cheesed half of the bun.
The only workers you’ll see around the machine, apart from the odd employee replacing ingredients, are "concierges" at the front of the contraption to take orders and payment and a few at the end to serve the burgers.
An accompanying app will allow customers to submit their orders in advance, and customize the amount of sauce on the top bun and the amount of salt on the bottom of the patty. Right now, the machines can produce about 120 burgers an hour. Eventually, the company hopes to produce 400 an hour. If the company can achieve that goal, it'll greatly increase the value of the machine. But in terms of the cost to build and operate one of these machines, Vardakostas says it's far less than the $1.5 million it reportedly costs to open a McDonald's franchise.