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Squaring the circle

By: Reading Time: 3 Minutes
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Just a few months after opening, a San Francisco burger joint has already achieved cult status. Their secret? Gourmet quality plus restaurant robotics.

“Nobody believed in Alex. Except for his friend Steve.” Where success goes, an origin story usually isn’t far behind.  It’s no different for Creator, a robot technology-based gourmet burger restaurant that opened on San Francisco’s Folsom Street in September 2018.

David Bordow, creative kitchen chef and produce buyer, is only too happy to tell the story of Steve Frehn, an engineer who had worked for NASA and Tesla, and his friend Alex Vardakostas, whose family was in the restaurant business. “Alex had this idea to make the freshest hamburgers in the world. Using robot tech. And sustainable ingredients. It sounded totally absurd somehow, kind of like squaring the circle, and some people thought he was a nutcase. Steve was totally gung-ho about the idea, though.” David laughs. He’s in his mid-thirties, tall, with finely chiseled features. “But another nine years went by before the first burger rolled off the belt.”

A soft rattling sound underscores that tinkerer Steve has made Alex’s dream a reality. One of the mechanical serrated knives in a machine on a pale wooden pedestal is slicing open a round brioche bun. David steps up to the four-meter-long, Plexiglas-clad machine, which makes no secret of their processes. “The bun gets sliced open up here on the right,” he says. “The two halves travel down to those copper arms in the vertical pipes, where they’re pressed against heat plates to toast them just a bit. After that, the halves drop into cardboard trays and continue down the line, horizontally this time, where they’re topped with freshly chopped onions, tomatoes, sauces and seasonings. Depending on the order and the recipe, of course.” At the end of the conveyor belt, the fried hamburger patty hops onto the bun from the left.  The whole process takes just under five minutes.

“Our patties are especially loose and tender, which is also thanks to the robotics.” The silo-shaped construction at the left end of the production system has a specialized gripper arm used to press freshly ground beef into a patty – so gently that it would fall apart if transported by human hands. “This patty technique – which, by the way, is the same one three-Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal developed at The Fat Duck – keeps the muscle fibers in their original arrangement. The loose structure creates a larger overall surface area to develop that nice crust during searing. As a result, the burger’s flavor is a lot more intense,” David concludes. Burgers are cooked to order – rare, medium, or well-done – with the help of heat sensors and a specially programmed algorithm.

Transparency and openness are part of the company philosophy, and not just when it comes to technology and design – ingredient sourcing is a thoroughly documented affair as well. Besides being responsible for quality, David regularly develops new recipes showcasing seasonal ingredients. Ideologically speaking, the lanky designer is at home in the slow-food world. He studied under Alice Waters, whose Chez Panisse in Berkeley is internationally renowned. “We get our greens and veggies from local farms,” Bordow explains when asked about sustainability at Creator. “Our meat is pasture-raised and certified organic.” Preservatives aren’t an issue in the first place, since they use all of their ingredients immediately. Customers can see for themselves just how fresh the vegetables are – the large refrigerators separating the kitchen from the dining area have transparent glass doors as well.

Showing and sharing: Occasionally, Creator invites fellow chefs to experiment with the robot, which is made up of around 7,000 components and cost nearly a million dollars. Arun Gupta, the chef at Dosa (a local institution for Indian fare), developed a masala burger for the restaurant; his spicy-sweet-sour concoction features pickled tomatoes, bird’s eye chilis, mango chutney, and aioli, and has about as much in common with an ordinary fast-food burger as a standard room at the Best Western does with the honeymoon suite at a luxury resort.

An old American standby prepared gourmet-style with sustainable ingredients, for just six dollars? Instant hit. Granted, Creator (which is on the ground floor of a modern office building) is currently open just three days a week, and only for lunch – but thanks to social media and word-of-mouth advertising, when it IS open, it’s packed wall-to-wall. Fortunately, the two machines capable of producing up to 120 burgers per hour, and watching the diligent little robots work makes the short wait time go by even faster. There’s no trace of that cold, reserved atmosphere people stereotypically associate with “high tech”, either. It’s easy to get sucked into conversation here, especially since the place is swarming with hip denim-aproned staff waiting tables, and Ian Hagn, the charming restaurant manager, is drifting from one table to the next, chatting with customers.

Along the way, he mentions what the future holds for Creator: the company’s planning on opening two additional locations in San Francisco, plus one in Los Angeles. In fact, they’re planning on launching a full dozen new Creator outposts within the next eighteen months. For the thirtysomethings happily munching their burgers nearby, it’s exciting news. San Franciscans tend to believe that technology makes the world a better place, so tomorrow will always be better than today around here.

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