I Ate a Robot Hamburger Before the Restaurant Went Out of Business

The future is upon us and the robots will soon take over. Automated cars will put Uber drivers and cabbies alike out of work. Low-wage workers, like the people working behind the counter at McDonalds, will be replaced by burger-flipping robots. The entire operation of Spacely Space Sprockets, Inc. is run by a single man, pressing a single button, for four hours a day. This cartoon future is so fully automated that most people are unemployed, and all productive work is done by robots.

The first jobs to be replaced will be the first jobs teenagers get. These are low skill jobs, and when you think about low skill jobs (certainly not low-effort jobs, by the way), you think of flipping burgers. That’s where Creator comes in. They’re a culinary robotics company with a restaurant in San Francisco. They’ve been profiled by NPR, by Business Insider, and by CNBC. TechCrunch got a sneak preview proclaiming this as the future of the six dollar burger. It is a marvel of engineering prowess with a business model that I don’t think checks out. This is not the robot that will take your job, and I’m proud to say I ate a robot hamburger before the restaurant went out of business.

The Strangest Dining Experience You’ll Ever Have

The menu of burgers

When I was there — on a Wednesday — Creator was closed. They’re only open on Thursdays and Fridays until their ‘official’ opening. I went back a week later, and found a line of tech bros winding around the corner, and two staff members outside handing out laminated paper menus. Apparently putting a gigantic TV above the counter, like every McDonalds in the country, is too pedestrian.

After waiting in line with a few of my coworkers, we were allowed into Creator where waitstaff with a tablet computer and card reader took our order. The system isn’t set up to order several burgers under one check, so my coworkers and I gave our orders individually, and I handed my card to the order taker for each burger. No cash is accepted.

Automation and All Beef Patties

After placing the order, you’re set to wait the six or so minutes it takes for the robot to build your burger. By any account, this machine is beautiful. Smartly, the inventors of this robot hamburger machine chose to hide the process of forming ground beef into patties, and turning those patties into cooked burgers — that’s because this entire process looks disgusting, whether a robot makes it or not. No one needs to see a vat of meat being chopped, processed, and cooked.

Other than that, the entire process is sealed behind glass, moved along by some of the greatest industrial automation technology I’ve ever seen. The buns are moved along a pneumatic tube, where they’re vibrated against a knife. The bun halves drop down a vertical toaster, where they land on a disposable, recyclable plate which was dispensed by a vacuum gripper. This plate moves along a conveyor belt where lettuce is shredded, pickles are chopped, tomatoes are applied, and cheese is melted. At the end of this assembly line, the cooked patty is placed on the rest of the sandwich, and it’s delivered to the counter by a waiting worker. It takes six minutes to prepare one burger, and the machine can output one burger every thirty seconds or so.

From there, you just grab your burger and get a table. How are the burgers? They’re okay. It’s meat, cooked with fire, on a toasted bun, with toppings.

It’s nothing really spectacular, The main selling point is of course the theater of watching two massive mechanical machines spit out cooked patties, slice tomatoes, cut pickles, dispense sauce, and sprinkle toppings onto a sandwich. They’ve got one machine on display in the front window, and another right next to where you wait for your burger. This is an experience, make no doubt about it.

Math of the Future

Here’s where the robot burger joint goes off the rails. I can’t figure out how this place makes money. Sure, a San Francisco-based startup flushing money down the toilet isn’t anything new, but there has to be a plan to make money, right? There were two people taking orders, a doorman, someone cleaning up outside, someone cleaning up inside, and at least half a dozen people working the machine. Most of them wore Apple Watches, which are part of the uniform, because this tells the employees what’s wrong with the machine.

Creator’s automated hamburger line. Patties are made and cooked in the refrigerator-sized unit to the left. Source: Creator

Contrast this with a McDonald’s, where you’ll have only ten people working during the lunch rush. You’ll have a kiosk, where you can order a burger with a touch screen, and the McDonald’s makes money. Not much, mind you — the best, most available figures are that a McDonald’s franchise doing two million in sales per year will net somewhere between one and two hundred thousand dollars.

Of course some issues will be worked out if this restaurant is ever scaled to more than one location (like not being able to order more than one burger per credit card transaction, likely costing Creator around $0.80 in fees every time a ticket could have been combined but wasn’t). I have no idea how much the Creator machines cost, but its complexity and the need for human operators to load, clean, and maintain all point to a high price tag. Unless they can get costs under control, they’ll be spending more money than a McDonald’s franchisee while taking in less money.

Is It About the Robot, or About the Burger?

This isn’t to say a robot restaurant can’t be a destination attraction; there’s a robot bar in Vegas that might just make money. That’s foot traffic and novelty, though; there are only so many people working in San Francisco, and once the novelty wears off, it’ll only be the convention center and Dreamforce bringing in the customers.

So, is the Creator burger worth it? Well, there are at least two Super Duper burger joints within a few blocks of Creator. There, you can get a burger, fries, and a beer for $16. At Creator, the burger is six bucks, the fries are three, and the beer is six, a total of $15. That’s a whole dollar you’re saving because of automation technology. This is weird, I don’t know how this place can stay in business even if the robot is really, really cool. At least I ate there before they closed up shop.

76 thoughts on “I Ate a Robot Hamburger Before the Restaurant Went Out of Business

  1. How long does it take to get the burger at Super Duper, and at Creator ?

    That aside, if they replace all of these low wage jobs with machines, who will buy their burgers ?

    1. You also realize the burger looks like s**t (and probably have no taste) compared to several fast food chain offers like In and Out. Same with Farmer Brothers and Five Guys.

      And $16.00 for the beer, burger and fries? Screw them. For a little more I can go to Claim Jumper restaurant, order a nice Tri Tip sandwich with Au jus, fries and a drink for a buck more. And BTW it’s a nice place to eat. Creator’s food joint has all the ambience of a DMV office.

      And compared to In&Out in terms of price and quality, they can’t compete. You get a burger, fries and drink for around $6.00.

    1. I think it will be lab grown meat. Right now some people turn their noses up at that, but consider what meat has become. Boneless, gristle-less, uniformed… sure people still eat steak, but I’d wager that’s way way down per capita. Lab-grown meat would continue this trend, only including the traits most desired in the meat product.

      The climate report out this week includes a bit about needing to move off of eating meat to help curb our damage to the environment. Lab-grown should be able to help with this a lot.

      1. We could continue to eat meat with a reduced environmental impact by eating insects. Already popular in many parts of the world. Insects transform their food into children much more quickly than larger animals, so they’re also more efficient per unit mass of meat.

        1. Insects are not a popular food source in any country. There are only few countries in which insects even play a role as food, and I have been to most of them. In the vast majority of those countries they are not common but just part of special dishes or traditions, and if they are common, then not because they are popular, but because people don’t have anything else. They would trade those insects for a hamburger at any time, and I totally get it. I’ve eaten tarantulas, maggots, crickets and other stuff, it’s all just crunchy stuff without any taste. It’s way worse than Tofu.

          1. Some larvae are pretty good, kinda like shrimp, but the crickets and the rest of the stuff is just better ground up into powder and added to a protein shake. It’s either gross, or bland.

          2. Fish and crab can be just as efficent without the gross factor or just feed them the bugs and they’ll be converted to something better at high effciency.
            Auqa culture is the real future of farming high protien food.

          3. In Germany you can buy insect burgers now at quite a lot of supermarkets: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/22/bug-appetite-german-supermarket-sells-burgers-made-from-worms
            I eat them occasionally and they taste quite good. I think that pre processed insect based food that comes in familiar shape helps a lot with acceptance. As far as I understand this is some kind of experiment by the supermarkets to see if it sells. But at least in the supermarket close to my place they are sold out occasionally (but they don’t have too many of them in the freezer to start with)

      2. Genetically modified lab grown homo sapien meat to be precise. It’s the only thing that will please everyone.

        Why?

        Even when we no longer have to kill animals to enjoy a steak that is only stage 1. A lab-grown steak will still be the immortal cellular descendant of some poor slaughtered animal that provided the original tissue sample.

        And so we get to stage 2. Meat grown from cell lines that are certified to have been taken using harmless biopsies of sedated animals that then lived out their natural lives in some idyllic environment. So.. that’s great but not quite there yet. That idyllic environment was still a pen and a non-human animal cannot give consent to have it’s body used that way. (or any other way you sicko!)

        So then we wind up in stage 3. All samples come from the one animal that CAN give consent. Mmmmm Long Pig, Yum! But people like variety plus they will probably miss those previous meat types.

        That finally takes us to stage 4. Genetically engineered human-derived cell cultures that are modified to have the look, texture and taste of beef, chicken and everything else we have always eaten. While they are at it they might as well and so will come up with some new meat varieties. It will be an endless cornucopia of people meat!

        Don’t think people would be willing to eat that? Think the idea will gross people out too much? Nah! Just look at our meat products today that are made out of pink slime. That doesn’t gross us out. Hot dogs.. yum, pass them on over!

      3. Lab grown meat is like AI cars … massively oversold because VCs are willing to throw money at it, to the point everyone pretends the emperor has clothes.

        An animal can extract nutrients extremely cheaply from feed, it can filter out waste products from the blood, it can form meat into large chunks. Lab meat needs nutrient expensively extracted from feed. The cells will poison the nutrient solution, which will either have to be expensively filtered or more likely only a tiny amount of the nutrients in solution will be used and the rest will be used to ferment more efficient organisms not evolved to function with the help of a liver and kidney. The meat formed is just a bunch of small groups of cells, not a large muscle.

        I find it extremely unlikely it will compete with meat any time soon.

        1. Yes. That are also exactly my thoughts about this. And AFAIK all this experiments for lab grown meat need fetal calf serum for the nutrients. Blood from an unborn calf, which of course dies afterwards.

        2. Agreed a lot of the people pitching lab grown meat either do not understand exactly how difficult it is to grow tissue in the lab or they purposefully skip over the details,or think some near magical dues ex is going to come along and make things like calf serum and accurate temperture controls unnesscarry.

        1. So we should stop growing cattle and eat environmentalists instead? At least until they are eradicated or stopped buggering us about eating meat.
          Climate change is nothing humans have any real influence. We can destroy our economy and make our live miserable by giving up meat or cars but that won’t change anything

          1. One big gripe I have with the so called green movement is their anti nuclear stance.
            Nuclear is one of the few carbon energy souces that can form base level energy generation now vs 20 years from now.
            Modern generation four reactors such as molten salt or liquid metal are much safer and burn their actinides so the resaulting waste has a much shorter half life.

  2. The problem with automated burgers (it’s been done before, as far back as the 80s) has never been the machine’s ability to put the burger together. It’s the cleaning and the failure modes. Even if this thing has a really nice self-cleaning mode, it’s going to start looking grungy REALLY fast. Half of the job as a burger-flipper is cleaning every damn thing, every day, and you still end up with a layer of solidified oil residue over everything.

    1. That’s what I thought when I first saw this video from a different burger chain. Check out the grease spraying up from the burgers and then look at the part of the robot arm just past the flipper actuator. That’s going to get dirty really fast and need a lot of cleaning. Plus, why involve the robot here if the human still needs to place the raw patties and add the cheese?

      The automation I find interesting in that example is the top-down camera. Pair it with a laser projector and this could draw colored circles around the patties that need flipping based on time they’ve been on the griddle. Even so, I think you’d get caked on grease on that camera and projector eventually, and anyone working a griddle as a job will quickly learn to spot patties needing flipping as second nature.

      I feel bad because I’m coming off as anti-automation, but I’m not. It’s just really hard for me to see these systems making an impact important enough to be implemented widely.

      1. >”I feel bad because I’m coming off as anti-automation”

        Don’t be. This really isn’t a sensible use of automation. The entry-level service jobs are basically like welfare – you have people doing something in exchange for their bare essential living. Otherwise you’d have them doing nothing and collecting a welfare check. To replace these jobs with automation costs the welfare check plus the cost of the robot – which is greater than simply having the people work these jobs.

        1. Or alternatively, people doing nothing while racking up more student loans in hopes of that sweet engineering job that they’re unlikely to land. Either way, you got to pay the cost sooner or later, and the person is a cost you cannot avoid (unless you’re a massive dick) while the robot is a cost you can avoid.

        2. “To replace these jobs with automation costs the welfare check plus the cost of the robot – which is greater than simply having the people work these jobs.”
          The problem there is that the welfare cheque represents a cost to the taxpayer, whereas the cost reduction of replacing a human with a robot is enjoyed by the corporation that doesn’t care about the cost to the taxpayer. And is probably already enjoying some nice tax loopholes that ensure they’re already paying less than their fair share back to society to begin with.

          1. If most jobs are replaced by robots then some sort of universal basic income will be necessary or society will collapse as who would buy the goods and if people become desperate the have nots will will go after the haves with pitchforks and torches in hand in a modern day repeat of the French revolution.
            Not sure what happens after that Butlerian Jihad from Dune or Socialism that hopefully would be more UFP from Startrek then USSR?

      2. Safe food handling has been the downfall of many a restaurant. If they could make the robot fully self cleaning and have it handle the food from end to end, it would eliminate one of the biggest headaches in the fast food industry.
        Of course, if not done properly it could end up as a huge sanitation problem.

      3. I was at the robot bar in Vegas recently. It was $16 per drink but an experience to see the motions.
        However, 1 robot was down due to a problem. Forecast drink times were 40 minutes, but actual times were closer 5 minutes, also the ordering tablets crashed. The ice machine was broken and the robots couldn’t tell ice was not being dispensed. Drinks didn’t taste great and reloading bottles seemed to involve an assistant climbing on to the bar and pulling down bottles and replacing them. It took 2 people to maintain drinks coming out on a quiet day where a single bartender could have easily handled it.

        However first of the new is usually beaten by the last of the old…

  3. Robots are cool and this one is no exception.

    I find it interesting that the sites who profiled this all took the “$6 burger” angle but it doesn’t look like Creator is pushing this in their marketing material.

    I don’t see how it can compete in the low-end burger market. The economies of scale for industrial griddle (or grill) and a few hand tools make the startup equipment cost for a human cook really low. On the other end of things, I think a big part of the craft burger market is the loving care put into it by the chef (choosing the ingredients, balancing the flavors, combining interesting ingredients). I want those people inventing cool meals and understand there’s a higher price tag to that. I wonder if there’s some intermediary automation that is between that and this (ie: the stand mixer it a type of automation, what others are low hanging fruit?).

    1. The $6 price tag is not the appeal, but the experience of this futuristic robot making burger.
      They could have sold it $15, people still would have come.

      As for the low end market, you can’t politically suppress low end jobs now.
      But this machine starts a new generation of food automation.

      For me, it goes like this :
      Single meal hand made (knife for the patties)
      Multiple meal hand made (make a batch of ground beef, then form a batch of patties)
      Tool for Multiple meal (hand beef grounder, hand put in patties former)
      Semi automation for multiple meal (white castle and their square steak to bake more in one batch)
      Tool for single meal (personal beef grinder)
      Full automation ingredients mass prod (frozen patties industry)
      Semi automation for single meal (like Thermomix) <-[We are here]
      Full automation meal mass prod (This machine is the precursor)
      Full automation for single meal prod (when?)

      Interesting parts can be reused today. The spice mixer in itself can be sold to people.
      The break slicer and toaster can easily be staked on top of McDo line of prod (witch already half automate fries production).
      To sum up, it's a first step to a new area, and it will be daily technology in like 5-10 year if it continues this way.

    2. In my mind a capable burger-bot would make the customer the chef. The customer would choose their meats, buns, cheese, pickles, chillies and whatever else. They’d choose how they want each part cooked, perhaps order of assembly. Each item and cooking step can be individually charged. Someone in head office can put together some popular combinations, perhaps focusing on speed of preparation or something.

      1. This is it here! What can’t McD do? Make things to order. What can a robot do simply? Make minor changes in its algorithm, keeping track of complexity.

        If they don’t offer at least a degree-of-doneness feature in the next few months, I’ll eat my hat. Medium-rare, if you please.

        1. Maccas in Australia make everything fresh upon order. I mean the meat gets pre-cooked and stored hot, but they don’t assemble the burger until you order it, and they get your burger ready in the time it takes to drive to the payment window then on to the collection window.

          And they even put the burger together for you. This looks like it only makes really poorly made open sandwiches. I’m actually shocked at how low quality the output of this robot chef is. Nothing is placed remotely accurately.
          It’d be faster, and have the same effect if you just had some kid pouring lettuce and tomato down a funnel.

  4. McDonalds has already automated their soda fountains, and their fry making… as soon as they can automate flipping burgers cost effectively I’m sure they will…

    I don’t suspect a startup is going to out compete the existing fast food places just because of automation…

    1. This ^^. The reason that McD is so cheap is that they’ve automated their systems (which include the humans involved) to an amazing level.

      McD doesn’t automate the burger flipping per-se, but they have automated timers that go “bing!” and tell the people when to flip, removing that degree of judgement / non-uniformity from the process. Same with soda fills, fries, etc. Everything is pre-portioned, frozen, and involving the smallest possible amount of on-site labor.

      When I walk into a McD and see any people at all, it’s just a sign that it’s still cheaper to provide minimal instruction to meatsacks than it is to build robots.

  5. This barely even counts as a robot. It’s scarcely more automated than a microwave or a mixer or a proofing oven. It’s an appliance, a piece of equipment, still being fed and operated and cleaned by employees. That someone overcomplicated it with a bunch of PLC hardware and apps, is barely relevant.

    However, this is a PR triumph, and it will likely bring more attention, and crucially, investment, towards the parts that really do matter: Cleaning, maintenance, and failure modes. Basically, all the reasons it can’t run unattended. By all accounts, this thing is tremendously immature in all those areas, and that’s why it’s mostly just a novelty. But so was the Wright Flyer, and it still has a spot in history because it focused attention on improving those things to the point that its field could be taken seriously.

  6. RoboBurger has problems.

    That machine will require lots of cleaning on a regular basis to prevent grease build up that can cause bad tasting burger and create a fire hazard, There is nothing nastier than a burger cooked on a greasy grill.

    Two it’s going to require a skilled and expensive automation tech to repair it when it breaks. And when it’s down during business hours how do the burgers get cooked. Will they have a back up grill and some worker trained to cook burgers the old fashioned way?

    Also the burger looks like s**t. I wouldn’t feed it to my dog. It doesn’t even compare to a In&Out Burger either in terms of cost or quality.

    Lastly it doesn’t make economic sense. No where in the article do they talk about how much the machine costs. That means it’s crazy expensive since it’s probably a bespoke job.

    1. You’re not thinking outside the box. The box is changing the robot to accommodate the existing process of hamburger preparation. Not changing the process making it more suited to automation.

    2. It looks like shit? Um, no. Looks like a decent burger to me. In-N-Out burger’s are fine but not the paragon of quality. Not sure why people are so religious about that place. Just a small step up from McD’s. Do an image search and compare.

  7. I often feel like the human I have to interact with at the fast food restaurant is the worst part of the experience. The more automation/kiosks at those kinda place, the better imho. I do still feel like a human should do the cooking of the meat but the building of the sandwich or burger is just add and omit so it should be pretty easy to implement. As others have noted, the cleaning would be the tough part. It does seem like a lot of work and overhead though for what is basically a vending machine just so you can get the meat freshly cooked. Oh well. Fun read.

  8. I hate to sound stupid, but can someone clarify for me please. Are they closed down permanently? “closed up shop”

    “This is weird, I don’t know how this place can stay in business even if the robot is really, really cool.”
    So the burger place is still open.
    “At least I ate there before they closed up shop.”
    Past tense, they went bankrupt.

    A quick google and I don’t see any news of it being shut down
    I’m also thousands of miles away from the place, it’s not like i’m going to visit…. but this confused me

    Thanks

    1. I think he was metaphorically proclaiming the imminent demise of a concept he thinks can only fail.

      Financially, he may be correct in that this implementation isn’t profitable, but that hardly seems to be the point of this place. First, they have to learn what people want from a robot cook, or at least what they’re willing to accept. They also have to learn the logistics of supplying a robot in the real world – fresh food comes in a wide variety of shapes, weights, flaws, dirt, rot, insect damage, etc.; a human chef has no difficulty in handling these minor issues, but how will their robot handle them? Which all get to the big question – how much human intervention is actually needed?

      I think the restaurant sounds more like an experiment that at least doesn’t waste or discard all of its output.

  9. The granddaddy of them all was American Machine and Foundry’s AMFARE. That setup required only three people to operate. One to punch in the orders on the console, one to pull the finished food from the chutes and put them on the trays, one to carry the trays to the lobby tables or out to the cars. AMFARE not only fully automated production of burgers and cheeseburgers it did several flavors of soft drinks and milk shakes, plus french fries, and several other items.

    Patties were formed on demand, buns sliced immediately before use. Fries were dispensed and fried in individual order batches. Other items were pre-portioned and loaded in refrigerated delivery racks.

    AMF documents available on the web point to at least three locations in operation. They also recommend AMFARE as being suitable for locations bringing in at least $200,000 a year. That’s 1964 dollars. Adjust for inflation it’s around $1.2 million, which is in the reach of what even a small McDonalds in a town of around 5,000 people grosses annually.

    With current technology a robot could tray the food (look for ABB flex picker on YouTube) and order entry would be directly at the tables and carside kiosks. There’d be no need now to pre-portion anything, It could all be counted by piece (such as fried shrimp, chicken strips, or finger steaks) or by weight.

    All the functions of a fully automated fast food restaurant are solved problems. What needs attention is fully automating the cleaning. Clean the whole works overnight, every night. For the refrigerated and frozen storage there could be a cleaning cooler to move supplies to while the production coolers and freezers get an internal cleaning spray and dry, perhaps weekly or bi-weekly.

    Smoothness of design and not having little nooks and cracks for crumbs, oil, grease and little bits of broken off hamburger to get into would make cleaning easier. All the areas where the food passes through would need to be liquid proof so that internal high pressure sprays could be used, and of course it all would need drains. The drains should be designed so that the entry points inside the machines are the smallest cross section and all along the drain paths they get progressively larger so there’s no constrictions for anything to catch on and cause a backup.

    1. Having worked for several years in the food and dairy industry for a process controls automation firm, I can tell you that what you’re talking about, CIP (Clean in Place), is already a huge thing in some industries. However, it requires special consideration at every step in the component and system. You need special food-safe materials, IP69K-rated components for the high-temperature cleaning, marine-grade stainless steel to deal with the corrosive cleaning chemicals, careful arrangement of piping and mechanical assemblies to allow for cleaning, special chemicals that will dissolve waste food and kill germs but not people, and special control schemes to actually get everything clean. However, CIP is the only way to achieve full automation without humans anywhere in the control loop other than at a control console.

  10. I don’t know how you would apply it to making the burgers, but the other approach is to make the customers do the work in a way that makes them happy to do it.
    In the ’90s, Hardees installed soft drink filling robots that were tied to the order entry system. At about the same time, other fast food placed moved the soda fountains to the customer side of the counter and proclaimed “Free Refills!” The cost of the refills was less than the cost of the robot or manual labor. (soft drinks are crazy cheap in bulk)

  11. After 8 years of development. Jesus Christ. After 8 years of surfing, it would be ok to stack precut tomatoes in a tube. I really was expecting more. And really I’d like to see or even engineer such a device. This is an investor show only.
    But nice to read and see, thanks!

  12. When I first saw this I kinda expected the company to go under for several reasons including the robot generally being inferior to the automated system AMF made back in the 1960s.

  13. same problem with how they implemented The Melt. the whole big draw was “order your meal from your phone and don’t deal with order takers”. you create the order, then it generates a symbol to scan in. Problem is, the place still hires two staff to take orders. And the only scanners are at the head of the line. So you still gotta stand in line behind the “what do you guys have” and the screaming kid types. Saves all of half a minute. So later they installed tablets at the front which means you can bypass the line? not if you placed the order on your phone, you have to walk in then place it. So the whole big thing about using the phone? nixed. Becomes pretty much somewhat underwhelming burger or sandwich shop.
    So if this place wants to be about automation, it needs to only work with automation, otherwise its just like having model trains deliver your food, but even more expensive a gimmick

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