San Francisco is ground zero for tech companies, from social media to bioengineering. It’s also a city obsessed with food, and often the first destination for international chains like Michelin-starred Tsuta Ramen to break into the U.S. market. It’s a city teeming with early adopters and forward thinkers, like the team behind Creator, both a restaurant and a culinary robotics company that will offer the world’s first robot-made burgers when it opens in SoMa on June 27.
The machine isn’t a parody of a human with robotic arms and fingers, flipping burgers and assembling buns on a conveyor belt. It’s an all-inclusive burger-making device that accomplishes every part of the burger’s preparation, from slicing and toasting the brioche buns to grinding meat and searing the burger to order in five minutes.
It’s also an incredibly advanced engineering achievement. The team behind it includes an impressive lineup of engineers and roboticists from the pantheons of technology and user interaction like Apple, NASA, and Tesla. But, despite the firepower behind the machine, its reason for being is entirely focused on improving food. Food tech companies in the recent past have focused too much energy on creating a cool and complicated device, allowing its actual usefulness to take a back burner. (Juicero, the $700 juicer that failed spectacularly after users discovered they could simply squeeze the juice packs with their own hands to yield the same results, comes to mind.) However, this eight-year project began with founder Alex Vardakostas’s desire to improve how food is made.
“We’ve always been a food-first company,” says Alex Vardakostas of his company, Creator, formerly known as Momentum Machines. “I wanted to create a better culinary instrument.”
Vardakostas understands that need acutely: He spent years flipping innumerable burgers at his family’s restaurants in Southern California. After leaving the restaurants and spending time in the physics and engineering labs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he saw an opportunity. “I thought, ‘Why aren’t we bringing [this technology] to the restaurant space for better food?’” says Vardakostas. “Why can’t we make life better for people who work in restaurants?”
While the device does most of the work, the process isn’t devoid of people. During the restaurant’s busiest hours, as many as nine “robot attendants” will be on the floor, taking orders, delivering burgers and drinks, and generally offering good old-fashioned human hospitality.
There are no kiosks — Vardakostas says they feel dystopian — so orders are taken by humans with iPhones on the floor. Eventually an app will allow customers to place orders themselves, with specifications down to the milliliter of sauce they’d like on their burger.
When there’s an issue with the machine — something needs to be refilled, or a burger has lost its way in the process — the humans in the room receive an alert sent straight to their Apple Watch, letting them know exactly where the problem is occurring.
While the “robots are stealing our jobs” narrative remains popular, this particular machine was designed to minimize tasks that are repetitive, and often unhealthy, like standing over a smoky grill for hours at a time. The electric griddles that cook the burgers are enclosed, and air is cleaned via multiple filters to improve its quality; when a diner walks into Creator, the air is not a cloud of grease and smoke.
Fries, side salads, and other items on the menu are prepared by humans in the back. “The machine can’t make the sauces,” says Bordow. “We make the sauces; we prep the items that go into the machine — humans are part of the process. This would never replace the need for a sous chef or a line cook.”
Creator: The Machine and Space
The robot, which has deliberately not been given a human name by its makers (see Flippy or Bruno), is a 14-foot all-in-one burger machine that uses 350 sensors and 20 computers to do its work. It can create a burger in five minutes, and with the two of the machines on display at this first location, can create 130 burgers in an hour.
The display is key to the concept here as well, with the entire process visible to lookers-on. “We’re trying to make this the most transparent restaurant possible,” says Vardakostas. That includes a glass display case starring every ingredient that goes into or on the burger.
The 2,200-square-foot space is minimalist in design (a lead designer for BMW, Per Selvaag, was involved with its design), with white surfaces and a very uncluttered look more suited to a salad spot than a burger joint. According to Vardakostas, that’s to allow diners to focus on “the important things: the food you’re eating, and who you’re with.” There is no signage here, either, or text of any kind, really — except for books, carefully selected by the team and placed on a set of shelves, with titles like Modernist Cuisine and The Flavor Bible (and several engineering textbooks thrown in for good, and exact, measure).
The culinary team is stacked with talent, too. Culinary lead David Bordow has cooked at Chez Panisse; he’s also the product-design lead, having studied and practiced mechanical engineering and product design. Bordow not only worked with the team to design user experience, but approached the project from the standpoint of helping people understand what they like about food. That means developing the menu of sauces and seasonings to include categories like tangy and smoky, and nailing down the ideal combinations of the many sauces and seasonings.
To create the burger, the team also brought on Pilot R&D, a food innovation and development company based in Healdsburg, California. Much like the engineering team, Pilot is brimming with culinary all-stars, including former heads of R&D for restaurants like Momofuku, the Fat Duck, and the French Laundry.
The team worked through specific details, including the ratio of fat in the burger meat blend, when to season it, how to season it, and more. One of the biggest determinations was the patty, which is a mix of chuck and brisket that’s been wet-aged in shio koji (a fermented rice seasoning). After it’s ground to order, the strands of the ground meat are kept in one direction so that a natural separation occurs when a diner bites into it — similar to cutting meat against the grain.
Other considerations: How the burger is built, which toppings should be included, and in what order they should be added. Ultimately the team decided on whole bread and butter pickles from McVickers Pickles, white onions, and tomatoes sliced to order; smoked and aged cheddars; and two shredded lettuce blends, plus sauces and spice blends.
“Everybody has an opinion about how a burger should be,” said Pilot co-founder Dan Felder. “So figuring out the benchmarks with something as familiar as a burger was certainly something we spent a lot of time on.”
In the Tumami burger, a collaboration with Top Chef contestant Tu David Phu, mushroom sauce is applied to the top bun, while smoked oyster aioli is added to the bottom, a careful consideration about what flavor should be tasted first. Chef Nick Balla (Duna, Tartine Manufactory) also has a burger on the menu, a collaboration that Creator hopes to continue with other chefs down the line. Balla’s burger, dubbed the “Dad burger,” includes sunflower-seed tahini, Heinz ketchup, garlic salt, pepper, pickles, and onion.
The burgers will be available in pairings with sides and drinks that Bordow and the team have tasted through to ensure that the flavors are perfectly complementary. The Dad burger, for example, is paired with fried romanesco and cauliflower and a ginger-lemongrass soda.
Aside from the jaw-dropping machine itself, the price is especially amazing, considering Creator uses organic, high-quality products with identified producers. Various factors that typically raise prices in restaurants are minimized at Creator, including energy use, a small retail footprint, and low food waste. For example, the induction griddle that cooks the burgers is only turned on when a burger is on order, versus a typical restaurant setup in which gas-powered grills or griddles run constantly. And because of the smaller amount of kitchen and prep space, Creator was able to snag a smaller retail space and pay less rent.
As a result, Creator is able to spend 40 to 50 percent on food costs; the industry average is hovers somewhere around 30 percent.
“I don’t know if we would see an immediate potential for shifting the paradigm across all restaurants,” says Ali Bouzari of Pilot. “It’s not like there are three dozen of these types of teams that are positioned or even well on their way to taking this approach. The fact of the matter is this a crazy achievement and it should be placed on a pedestal as a pinnacle.”
Ultimately, humans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. “What that means for the industry is there is a long and lush future for humans continuing to prepare food. We’re still relying on human creativity to drive what makes the burger special and high quality,” says Bouzari. “If we’re going to create machinery to do things, let’s do it so it replaces things people don’t want to do in the first place.”
Creator the restaurant will continue to perfect its burgers, with an eye toward expansion. “I want to get out of SF and into a more normal area where people can benefit from this,” says Vardakostas, referring to SF’s droves of presumably high-salaried diners. Creator the company will continue to work on tools that change the way restaurants are run, looking beyond burgers.
In the meantime, the restaurant opens to the public June 27 at 680 Folsom Street, offering ticketed slots for diners to order up to four burgers. Creator will then only be open 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays while the team continues to work out the kinks.
“This is the worst that [the burger] will ever be,” laughs Vardakostas about what are already very good burgers. “Normal restaurants lock things in and then they go down in quality. This thing will only get better.”