Can AI cook you a better burger?

This image shows Alex Vardakostas and Steve Frehn, cofounders of Creator Restaurant, next to their burger creating robot.

Alex Vardakostas and Steve Frehn, cofounders of Creator Restaurant, next to their burger creating robot. (Image credit: Ken Yeung)

There are burgers and then there are burgers. It’s hard to describe what makes a great burger, but you’ll know it when you taste it. From McDonald’s to Wendy’s, Burger King, Five Guys, and In-N-Out, it’s easy to get your hands on what some claim to be America’s favorite food.

But beyond fast-food chains, there are times when we prefer a more premium burger—something cooked with more care than speed, a bit more expensive (the difference between a $5 and $15 burger), and uses GAP4 rated meat that’s pasture-raised. This is great every now and then, but what if it’s possible to get not only a premium gourmet burger but at the cost of what you might pay at McDonald’s?

The $6 burger made by a robot

Image of a sample burger prepared using Creator's AI-powered robot.

A sample burger prepared using Creator’s AI-powered robot. (Image credit: Ken Yeung)

Meet Creator, a startup which built a robot with artificial intelligence that can mass produce premium burgers. Instead of licensing its invention to businesses—there are currently no plans to do so, the company said—the founders Alex Vardakostas and Steve Frehn opted to open an eponymously named restaurant in San Francisco to test their robot’s viability. (The restaurant opens on June 27, 2018.)

“I grew up in the restaurant space, flipping burgers, and taking orders. Doing it day in and day out, you find situations where you have to make several hundred burgers during your shift and you can’t spend a lot of time customizing it,” Vardakostas told me in an interview. This former semiconductor engineer turned his attention towards finding a better guest experience and improving how restaurants operate while removing the “monotony of flipping burgers.”

The inside of the Creator restaurant is sleek and modern, with clean white walls and minimalist design touches that makes it feel as if you’re in a Crate & Barrel store. The tables are arranged in rows so they seem inviting,  like a friendly, communal setting.

When you see the robot operate, the first thing to come across your mind might be the scene from “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”  — right before Violet Beauregarde turns into a blueberry involving the title character’s food machine that combines ingredients into bubblegum (don’t worry, you won’t turn into a blueberry after eating at Creator’s restaurant—trust me). The robot has more than 350 sensors, 11 of which are thermal sensors focused on the griddle, and 20 computers, capturing all time-series data. Vardakostas claims the AI is learning from every burger made and is improving itself to make them with increasing precision each time.

Image of the first step in Creator's burger-making robot, slicing a brioche bun.

The first step in Creator’s burger-making robot, slicing a brioche bun. (Image credit: Ken Yeung)

After eight years of testing the AI, Creator is ready to make burgers in prime time. Using an app, you can customize the burger to your specifications including how much cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions you want, the portion of condiment sauces, the spiciness, and more. The process aims to be consistent with how each brioche bun is cut and how each patty is cooked. Once you’ve placed your order, the machine goes to work, slicing the brioche bun and then adding in the toppings and sauces you want before applying the burger patty. After a few minutes (depending on how rare or well-done you like your beef and how many orders are ahead of yours), the finished burger is placed onto a tray jutting out from the machine for a human attendant to pick up and pair with a card confirming your order. 

This assembly-line process can certainly conjure up another scene, this time from “I Love Lucy” where Lucy is handling chocolate on a conveyor belt. From my observation, Creator’s robot won’t continue to spit out burgers if no one picks them up on a timely basis. In fact, movement of the conveyor itself is regulated by a variety of factors, like if a specific burger needs more sauce, the ones preceding it wouldn’t be stopped unnecessarily.

One of the assembly steps in Creator’s burger-making robot. (Image credit: Ken Yeung)

Vardakostas says each machine can make up to 120 burgers per hour, but since the restaurant is just opening, there’s no indication the robot is battle-tested to handle events like a massive lunch rush or influx of customers during a baseball game (it’s near the Giant’s baseball stadium). Even though their prototype restaurant is in San Francisco, Vardakostas and Frehn want to set up shop in other parts of the United States, cities where burger culture is rampant and there are those who might prefer a gourmet-style burger without breaking the bank.

Ordering is done through a mobile app, but the founders were reluctant to disclose specifics about how the data they gather will improve its AI and how personalized the experience will be. The app lets you choose what type of burger you want, and there are quite a few choices, including some made by well-known chefs like Duna & Bar Tartine chef Nick Dunn and Top Chef Season 15 contestant Tu David Phu. However, it’s unclear if the app will be able to store your preferences for future visits, or if it understands your eating habits like what toppings you like, or allowing you to order ahead and timing it to your arrival.

Suffice it to say that after a considerable taste test, each burger was well-prepared and worthy of eating — and this is coming from someone who eats a lot of fast food.

Making smart food

Using AI in food technology isn’t new—companies like June and Tovala are using it in their smart ovens, and Nomiku applies the technology in its cooking appliances. Most people probably think targeting consumers is the right way to go initially since many smart gadgets are focused on this segment, and there doesn’t seem to be any signs of slow down: “Consumers should be on the lookout for all of their appliances to be able to speak to each other and be connected, so everything from their oven to refrigerator to stove are able to work together to make the perfect meal and take away pain points in making meals, what food needs to be replenished, what food you have to make dinner tonight, etc,” June CEO Matt Van Horn tells me.

June’s smart oven (Image credit: June)

He went on to say: “There is a movement for people to know what is in their food and how it’s made and people want to cook and share that experience with their friends and family and June and AI in kitchen food tech allows cooking to be more accessible to everyone.”

When asked why he started with restaurants, Vardakostas suggests that while many people think of technology starting in industrial applications before going to personal use, restaurant use falls in-between and he thinks this is where AI will be adopted quickly.

And he’s not alone in thinking this. McDonald’s has turned its attention towards robotics, AI, big data, and machine learning. Through an app, you can place and pay for orders along with obtaining deals, and the fast-food chain learns when and which restaurant you visit, how often, whether you use the drive-thru or eat inside, and what you’re buying. Among other things, McDonald’s is using interactive terminals to expedite orders and cut down on costs, while capturing customer data.

“If we can develop technology to give crew members more time it’ll be more about the experience of people in the factory,” Joel Eagle, McDonald’s senior director of technology and architecture remarked in March. “If we eliminate the need to focus on a broken machine we allow more focus on the experience.”

Van Horn echoes this sentiment, sharing that for June, “we saw a diverse audience and we see that everyone, from professional chefs to home cooks, are looking for ways to streamline their cooking experience and give them more control and precision in the kitchen with advanced technology.”

Investors aren’t shying away from food startups building commercial robots. Millions of dollars have been invested in Zume ($48 million), EKIM ($2.5 million), and Chowbotics ($11 million). Creator itself has raised an undisclosed round (TechCrunch reports the startup may have raised at least $18.3 million) from GV, Khosla Ventures, Root Ventures, and others. Vardakostas and Frehn state that their machines will “pay for themselves in a matter of months” and have no plans currently to license the technology to third-parties. (And yes,  there is at least one robot that already flips burger patties, but that’s all it literally does…flip burgers. Creator’s robot does it all, and this makes it worth trying at least once.)

For restaurants, the turn towards AI is about reducing costs and improving profitability, but not necessarily by eliminating jobs. There will be an average of six people working at Creator, although this may change based on how busy the restaurant is. Vardakostas explains that employees are paid $16 per hour, and believes that with automated burger making, there will be more opportunities for workers to focus on customer service and develop new skills.

He repeated a line that technologists like Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick have used in the past, that robots should be able to drive a car safer than humans. By that, Vardakostas means that automation and AI in restaurants will improve our dining experiences while producing higher-quality meals—without costing us a fortune.