I Ate The New Robot Burger in SF, and it Surprised Me
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When I first heard about San Francisco’s new robot cook I was a mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, I didn’t like the idea of automated machines taking jobs from service industry workers. But on the other hand, (the little piggy inside of me) really wanted to make friends with a robot who could make me cheeseburgers on demand. And since the new burger robot was going to do the job of a fry cook, I assumed they would make her/him/it just like the fry cooks I’ve known in the past, meaning the robot would have forearm tattoos and tell me dirty jokes, but unfortunately the burger robot isn’t anything like that. It’s shiny, clinical, and heavily designed, as if Nasa and Apple engineers made it. Because they did.
Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures invested tens of millions in the burger robot’s R&D, but the new burger company ‘Creator’ isn’t all robots and nerds. The founder Alex Vardakostas is a former fry cook, UCSB Gaucho, and knows more about hamburgers than any person I’ve ever met. He grew up working the grill in his family’s burger restaurant, and his reasons for creating the ‘Creators’ burger robot were much different than you may think, to Alex it’s about making much higher quality burgers at a price point people can actually afford.
Alex told me he spends 2.5 times more money on the beef in his burgers than anyone else selling burgers at the 6$ price range, and at least 5 times more than your average fast food hamburger patty. The idea is that the money the robot saves in labor and liability costs, allows Creator to spend more on quality ingredients. And I have to say you can taste the difference, the robot grinds up whole brisket and chuck into its patties right before it goes to the grill, and the burgers have a satisfying texture, taste, and consistency that took years of experimenting and tasting to develop.
The Creator robot doesn’t talk at all, (it didn’t shake my hand, or ask me to be its friend) it simply streamlines every aspect of the burger making procedure, including the chopping, grinding, & grilling of hamburgers. The lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles all taste fresh like you’d expect, but to me the standout factor from the robot burger was the seasoning and sauce. Creator’s flagship ‘Pacific’ burger sauce has a tangy and rich taste that follows the classic ‘burger sauce/thousand island’ theme while also having its own unique, tangy flavor. And the sauces only get more interesting from there, I also got to try the ‘The Recreator’, which has the classic burger sauce on it but adds smoked cheddar, habanero sea salt and alderwood smoked salt. Yeah, it’s hella good if you like a light heat.
Right now the robot burger serves 5 different varieties, but the possible combinations of sauces and seasonings are almost endless, and they have cooks like David Bordow from Chez Panisse and Chef Nick Balla of Bar Tartine working on their flavor, so the future looks pretty delicious.
But life can’t all be just robots and cheeseburgers right? I circled back to the labor issue with the founder, in my best ‘they took our jobs’ tone of voice, (whilst stuffing my face with robot burger and trying minimize the amount of lettuce tuck in my beard). I asked him what he thought about the idea that robots are taking jobs (yum yum munch yum yum) away from real people, Alex told me about how he once had the job of grilling burgers growing up, inhaling char grill smoke, doing the same repetitive motion over and over again, hundreds of times a day. As someone whose worked in food prep myself, I can relate. He continued, “asking if robots should take this kind of job is the wrong question,” he told me, “we should be asking ourselves, ‘what is a better job for people’.”
He has a point, kitchen staff jobs are the some of the hardest to fill in the US, and there are rising labor shortages in the industry. Restaurant margins are super thin, and fewer and fewer people want to work as hard as kitchen staff do for that low of a wage. Especially when you live in a city like San Francisco which has the highest cost of living in the nation. Few can survive here on a minimum or blue collar wage.
Alex continued, “everyone who comes in here is going to eat much better quality of food than they otherwise would at this $6 price range.” And as a broke-ass living in SF myself and seeing the direction the city is going in, I can’t really argue with that. For instance, next door at ALX Gastropub on Folsom St. they’re selling a FOIE-GYU BURGER for $35. In contrast, and at the other end of the burger spectrum you’ve got McDonalds selling it’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese on Market st. for nearly $6, and McDonald’s has some of the lowest quality beef in the burger world. When you take that into account, it’s pretty clear that the 4.5 oz Creator burgers are a hell of deal.