Alex Vardakostas grew up flipping burgers. Now he’s the co-founder and CEO of Creator, San Francisco’s newest, most high-tech burger establishment. For $6, customers can get a made-to-order burger crafted by a 14-foot-long “culinary instrument” — also known as a robot.
Creator’s burger-making robot is a long stretch of sleek machinery, with 350 sensors, 50 actuators, and 20 computers to ensure every sauce is dispensed down to the milliliter and every spice down to the gram. Glass silos hold a colorful array of condiments. Three compressed-air tubes hold fresh-baked brioche buns, ready to push one out to a belt when you place your order.
Other restaurants have incorporated automaton (remember Flippy, the burger-flipping robot?), but Creator is the first to build a machine that makes your burger from start to finish — all in about five minutes. Eventually, customers will be able to order though an app with the ability to customize every detail of the burger, but for now orders are placed through a human concierge at a counter. Behind them, the robot sets to work.
The bun, pressed out by the compressed-air tube, is sliced by a vibrating knife and then toasted and buttered as it’s moved along to the condiment belt below. Sauces and spices are measured with precision; tomatoes, pickles, and onions are sliced on the spot. Cheese is grated directly onto the bun. All of this is visible through the robot’s glass front, so you can watch your burger being crafted.
Meanwhile, the meat is prepared behind a covered section of the robot. Hormone-free, pasture-raised brisket and chuck steak are freshly ground, the strands hung vertically and then lightly pressed together. This method (as opposed to mashing the meat together) makes the patty tender and juicy. The robot grills the meat to perfection, drops the burger onto your dressed bun, and a human server delivers the masterpiece to you on a tray. When you bite into the burger, your teeth align with the strands of meat, making it more savory. Burgers are paired with healthy farro or seasonal veggie salad, but you can still opt for fries if you want a classic American meal.
This is a burger made of quality, fresh ingredients, (“We spend more on our ingredients than any other burger restaurant,” says Vardakostas), but it’s just $6. Due to the robot cook, Creator is able to save on staff and space. The entire store is 2,200 square feet; staff are only needed to restock the machine and take and deliver orders. Placing your order through a human also avoids any disability lawsuits, like the one quinoa-based restaurant chain Eatsa faced last year. The tech-savvy eatery had all orders placed through iPads, with no option for the visually impaired to utilize this service. Creator avoids issues like these by providing well-supported staff.
Vardakostas knew the robotics of Creator could make high-quality burgers more cost-effective, but he didn’t want to lose the human element of food service. The restaurant’s staff is paid $16 per hour and are encouraged to use 5% of their time doing something to benefit themselves in the long run. Creator has a budget for books, so staff can spend this time reading. Vardakostas hopes to revolutionize restaurant employment as well as cooking.
It helps that his own story started in front of a burger grill. Vardakostas’ family owns Southern California’s A’s Burgers, and two of his aunts have their own burger chains. Vardakostas says he’s made tens of thousands of burgers in his life, and this inspired him to launch Creator.
“When you make 400 of the same burger every day,” he said, “you can’t help but think, ‘How would I make this experience better?'”
With a physics degree in hand, Vardakostas got to work on his burger-making machine. His project started as Momentum Machines in 2009, working out of a garage in true start-up style. When Vardakostas headed to Silicon Valley, he met Creator co-founder and COO Steve Frehn, a mechanical engineer with resume lines from NASA and Tesla Inc.
With backing from Google Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and Root Ventures, Momentum Machines grew and re-branded to become Creator. Reinventing the burger joint isn’t cheap — according to TechCrunch, the start-up raised $18.3 million in 2017 and sought $6 million in 2013.
Finally, after years of development, the burger-making machine will serve the San Francisco public. Beginning June 27, Creator will be open for lunch Wednesdays and Thursdays until their full launch in September. For those who really can’t wait, tickets will go on sale July 10 for early-access meals in August.
While they’re just getting started, Vardakostas and Frehn already have big plans for the future. They hope to utilize Creator’s small size and move into airport terminals or bus stations.
“Our business model is pretty simple,” said Frehn. “We take a really good burger that people like and sell it for half the price.”