Creator, a new hamburger joint in San Francisco, claims to deliver a burger worth $18 for $6 — in other words, to provide the quality associated with posh restaurants at a fast-food price. The substance behind this claim is that its chef-de-cuisine is a robot.
Until recently, catering robots have been gimmicks. “Flippy,” a robotic arm that flipped burgers for the entertainment of customers at CaliBurger near Los Angeles earlier this year, is a prime example. Flippy could perform only one task.
Creator’s bot automates the whole process of preparing a burger. Other robot chefs that can prepare entire meals are working, or soon will be, in kitchens in other parts of America, and in China and Britain.
Customers send orders to Creator’s burger bot via tablet, customized by how well-done they want the burger to what toppings they want. The robot chef then grinds the meat, forms the patties and cooks them (a process tracked by 11 thermal sensors); chops tomatoes and grates cheese; slices, toasts and butters the bun; and dispenses seasoning and sauces. It then assembles and bags the finished products.
It took eight years to perfect the bot. As far back as 2012, a mere two years into the project, the machine was described as “95 percent reliable,” but that is not enough for a busy kitchen. Chopping tomatoes was a particularly tough challenge. Now, with a machine they claim can reliably turn out 120 burgers an hour, Alex Vardakostas, the engineer behind the project, and his co-founders feel confident enough to open their first restaurant.
What works for one sort of fast food can work for others. Though the business of pizza-making has not yet been automated completely, Zume Pizza, also based in California, is getting close. In Boston, a restaurant called Spyce offers more fashionable robot-created fare from a touch-screen menu that includes Latin and wok-cooked food.
For fast-food restaurants, in which the cooking is something akin to an assembly line, robotic kitchens with limited repertoires look like a promising innovation. For real foodies, though, a robot that can turn its hand to almost anything culinary would be the acme of automation (although there are companies working on that part of the business).
The catering industry is known for low pay, so automation is not an obvious cost-saver. It is probably, however, a quality and reliability enhancer, and in a field with fickle customers, and competitors around every corner, that could count for a lot.