Can AI Build You a Better Burger?

Two men, one in jeans and a grey button-down shirt, and another wearing blue jeans, dark blue sweater and is bald, in front of a burger-making machine.

Editor’s Note: This post about Creator Burger was originally published on the now-defunct All Turtles blog in June 2018. You can read other articles I’ve written for that site here.

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, and more expensive (the difference between a $5 and $15 burger).

This is great 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 built by a robot

Meet Creator, a startup that built a robot to mass-produce premium burgers powered by artificial intelligence. Instead of licensing its invention to businesses, the founders Alex Vardakostas and Steve Frehn have opted to open up a restaurant in San Francisco to test their robot’s viability. 

“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. Like most entrepreneurs, 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.”

When you see the robot operate, the first thing to come across your mind is the scene from “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” right before Violet Beauregarde turns into a blueberry. It’s equipped with 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 it more precise. 

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. It promises to be consistent with how each brioche bun is cut and how each patty is cooked so hopefully you won’t be disappointed by the size of the burger each time.

Each machine is said to make up to 240 120 burgers per hour but doesn’t seem to be tested for scale like during a massive lunch rush or a baseball game (it’s near the city’s baseball stadium). For Vardakostas and Frehn, even though their prototype restaurant is in San Francisco, they want to set up shop in other parts of the United States, cities where burger culture is rampant and some might prefer a gourmet-style burger without breaking the bank.

It seems the magic behind Creator is its mobile app, but the founders were reluctant to disclose specifics, such as how personalized the experience will be. The app does let you choose what type of burger you want, but may not store your preferences for future visits, nor will it understand your eating habits like what toppings you like, or allow you to order ahead and time it to your arrival. 

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. When asked about why target the commercial space, Vardakostas suggested that while we may think of technology starting in the industrial space before going to personal use, commercial use falls in-between and he thinks this is where AI’s application in food tech is right now.

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 gets access to when and which restaurant you visit, how often, do 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 the customer data it needs.

“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.”

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 from GV, Root Ventures, and other investors. Suffice it to say, it’s becoming a crowded marketplace so these companies will need to differentiate themselves. Vardakostas and Frehn state that their machines will “pay for themselves in a matter of months” and have no plans right now to license the technology to third parties. Whether this will be enough to turn Creator into a success remains to be seen.

Commercially, the turn towards AI is aimed towards reducing costs and improving sustainability. There will be on average six people working at Creator, although this could change based on how busy the service is, allowing the restaurant to reduce the amount of wages it pays. But as a result, Vardakostas shares that employees are paid $16 per hour, a liveable wage, and believes that with automated burger making, there will be more opportunities for workers to grow professionally. 

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

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