Lonely Planet Writer

Is this the future of dining? A robot is making $6 burgers at a San Francisco restaurant

San Francisco is the world’s capital of start-up culture. The hi-tech city is the cradle of innovation and home to forward-thinking entrepreneurs, designers, programmers and computer whizz-kids. It’s also a foodie haven and boasts some of the best restaurants in the US. It’s no surprise that this is the place where technology and food have combined to create the world’s first robot-made hamburger.

The assembly line in the robot kitchen of Creator, San Francisco. Image by Creator

After nine years of secret development, Creator has opened in San Francisco’s SoMa district. The culinary robotics company was set up by roboticist Alex Vardakostas, food designer David Bardow and mechanical engineer Steve Frehn in 2012. In July they launched their first robot-made burger joint and the results probably aren’t what you expect.

For one thing, the robot kitchen doesn’t look like your stereotypical robot. In fact, the creators refer to it as a “culinary instrument” rather than a robot and there are still people working in the kitchen and interacting with customers. Machines can sear meat and slice tomatoes more efficiently than humans can but they can’t take your order or chat with you and understand your needs in the way that humans can. The founders wanted to reduce the menial kitchen tasks, while still keeping the human element of the kitchen.

Pickles, tomatoes and onions are sliced by the robot kitchen of Creator, San Francisco. Image by Creator

Vardakostas spent five years flipping burgers in his parents’ Southern California restaurant but after studying physics in the University of California, Santa Barbara, he said he wanted to take that technology into the kitchen for “better food”.

With Creator, taste is paramount and chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants such as Momofuku and Chez Panisse worked closely with roboticists from Disney Imagineering, NASA and Telsa to create the 14ft-long robot kitchen, that features glass chutes that transport the buns, silos to dispense the sauce and paddles that move the burger along. It uses 350 sensors and 20 computers to do its work and can create 130 burgers in an hour.

The interior of Creator, San Francisco. Image by Creator

The sleek robot kitchen slices buns, tomatoes and onions, grills and grinds meat, adds condiments, sears buns and produces a gourmet hamburger in five minutes without any human intervention. The human staff take your order, prepare sides such as fries and coleslaw and keep an eye on the machine to make sure it doesn’t squirt ketchup on the wrong side of the bun.

Bookshelves filled with design and cookbooks. Image by Creator

The minimalist 2200 sq ft SoMa restaurant looks like a bright Scandinavian cafe with geometric forms in a flowing, open-concept space that emphasises simplicity and function in space and design. Per Selvaag, a lead designer for BMW, was involved with its layout. Design and cookbooks stack the wooden shelves and lush, potted plants add a splash of colour. Transparency is key and the open kitchen can be viewed from the restaurant with a display glass case highlights every ingredient that goes in or on the burger.

Creator Vs The World pairing. Image by Creator

Each burger is $6 and there are four options to choose from, including Creator Vs The World (Pacific sauce with umeboshi plum and mole, Pacific seasoning with garlic, mustard, bell pepper, fennel seed, pickles, onion, tomato, burger lettuce and cheddar cheese), and the Dad Burger (sunflower seed tahini, Heinz ketchup, garlic salt, pepper, pickles and onion. Fries and sides are $2.50, drinks are $2.50 and seasonal sorbets and fruits come with dessert.

For more information on Creator, see here.