Posted: Apr 07, 2019
SAN FRANCISCO — The lunchtime line is out the door at Creator, a recent addition to this city’s hip downtown foodie scene.
But the chef here has no Michelin stars, no attitude and no heart. Because the chef is a robot.
Steak, tomatoes, onions, buns and condiments get loaded into an ingenious machine, and a freshly ground, gourmet hamburger rolls out.
“And it’s only $6,” says Creator founder, Alex Vardakostas, 34, who started flipping patties at his parent’s Southern California burger joint A's Burgers at age 9 and figured he could find a better way to make this American classic. “For the price of a Big Mac, you’re getting organic ingredients and a perfect hamburger, every time.”
Creator is a novelty to be sure, but it also is a harbinger of a robotic invasion that brings with it big questions about the future of food, employment and social interactions.
Long known as a hotbed of hand crafted foods, some San Francisco restaurants are taking the opposite approach and turning to automation to handle food production. Creator is one, and its robot-made burgers have people waiting in long lines.
Not surprisingly, the Bay Area is proving to be both ground zero and test market for the march of artificial intelligence into the culinary world. Chalk that up to a variety of factors, including the prevalence of venture capitalists looking for the next tech breakthrough, a ready pool of voracious if time-crunched millennials, and a food-worker labor shortage that has forced a number of restaurants to close.
“It’s a real struggle, look at employment listings in the food industry here and you’ll see job availability at everything from top-rated restaurants to coffee shops,” says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, whose upcoming conference will include a session called “Robot Revolution: Are Robots the New Tool for Scaling?”
Customers stare at the burger-machine robot at Creator, a hot new San Francisco eatery where human employees do everything except make the food.
“In any cities where the cost of living is going up, this is an issue,” says Borden. “That’s causing food business owners to get creative to hire people, whether that’s by looking at hiring the homeless or former convicts, or by offering workers gym memberships.”
Or by bringing in robots.
It's a shift is happening across the U.S. and the world. In Boston, customers at Spyce get served up health food bowls by an automated machine. In Brooklyn, BigEve Sushi has robots doing the rolling. Brussels-based Alberts is peddling its Smoothie Stations across that country. And the scientists at British-based Moley are working on a robot that will take over all chores in your home kitchen.
San Francisco has fast become an epicenter of this automated trend. Beyond the burger robot at Creator, there’s the dancing coffee shop robot at Café X, Sally the salad making robot at an undisclosed tech company cafeteria, and the fresh baguettes pumped out by the Le Bread Xpress robot at a local mall. Then add in the fresh smoothie robot at Blendid on the campus of the University of San Francisco, and Zume pizza in Silicon Valley, where employees share duties with robots.
Robots = low cost, better food
The entrepreneurs behind these ventures all lay out the same rationale for pushing a robotized food future.
They say that robots do monotonous, repetitive-stress jobs exceedingly well, which leaves humans to serve in more high-touch roles such as advising customers on menu selection. Robots happily work 24/7, allowing for access to more high-quality foods in environments where traditional food services close, such as hospitals and universities. And at popular restaurants robots quickly pay for themselves, allowing owners to put more money into ingredients while keeping prices down.
“By eliminating the barista pushing buttons on a coffee machine, we can provide a very high-quality drink quickly at a lower price,” says Henry Hu, who came up with the idea for Café X five years ago while in college and now has three locations with another one coming to San Francisco’s airport.
There’s little doubt about Café X’s target demographic. Step into one of their shops and you’re greeted with a modernist décor, thumping music and a robotic arm that dances. Customers invariably walk in and pull out their cell phones for photos and videos.
“More than half of our customers are repeat, and our sales have doubled every year,” says Hu, who, in a familiar debate for robot food purveyors, is still deciding whether to own and operate his growing stable of robots or license the technology. “I think the future will be a mix of robot foods and places where you have personal experiences.”
Food writer Eve Turow Paul, whose forthcoming book “Hungry” tackles the future of food, says the potential upside of robots in the culinary world is “the democratizing of good food.”
Given the hectic all-hours pace of today’s work life, “there is going to be less and less time in the day to eat well,” says Paul, who is lso the author of “A Taste of Generation Yum” about millennials and food. “So if there’s a meal that is transparent, of high quality, fast and affordable, why wouldn’t people try it?”
Beware the pitfalls of robot chefs
But Paul also warns of potential pitfalls to an AI-powered foodie future.
These include “huge displacements of food workers over the next 10 years, or less,” says Paul. “No one will be flipping burgers anymore.”
Those most impacted will be workers on the low end of the pay scale, small salaries that ultimately will be made expensive when compared to robot overhead.
According to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, of the 73 million U.S. jobs that will be lost to automation by 2030, those most susceptible are physical ones in predictable environments. Those include workers who operate machinery, prepare fast food, collect and process data.
About half of workers who make minimum wage, which is typical in food services, are under age 25, according to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report on low-income workers.
Once robots are implemented in eateries, Paul is concerned that big fast food chains may just opt to put savings generated from employee cuts into their coffers and not into higher quality ingredients. Another big by-product could be simply losing touch with the very meaning of a meal, she says.
“Having a sensorial communitarian experience is a reason to go to a nice restaurant,” says Paul. “When there’s a robot making that food, you’re forgoing a certain sense of intimacy with another human being.”
Benoit Herve knows all about the dining ritual as a Frenchman coming from a family of bakers. And yet in his thinking, creating a stand-alone machine that can deliver hot baguettes is not sacrificing any gourmet experience and, instead, allows the masses to experience what he grew up with as a kid.
“Le Bread Express is not a vending machine, let us be clear,” the former tech worker says in his accented English. "We load half-baked loaves into the machine so that it can create something true and fresh for you for $4 in minutes. We keep the quality of a real French baguette and use technology to bring it to you.”
Herve’s lone kiosk is currently in a Bay Area mall, which he says is not the ideal location. Instead, he’s in negotiations with a range of area universities and hospitals, places where something fresh at all hours might be more appreciated.
That’s the identical mission of Blendid CEO Vipin Jain, a machine learning expert whose last venture was bought by Barnes & Noble.
Although Blendid’s lone smoothie making machine now is in a university setting, he’s looking for more high-traffic locations where people might want access to a robot that can whip up exotic organic drinks with fresh coconut water, flax and ginger.
Jain says the robot’s ability to expertly dispense precise amounts of aromatic ingredients guarantee a perfect concoction at a “reasonable” average price of $6 a drink. And, like many of his inventor peers, he says that what is lost in low-wage jobs is replaced by more specialized employment opportunities.
“This is a debate that’s been going on since the Industrial Revolution, and we as a society have to create jobs in a different, higher quality,” he says. “We need people to design, manufacture, install, service and monitor these robots. We are creating 21st century jobs.”
Machine skills expand exponentially
But humans will need to stay one step ahead of a robot's growing skill set. Experts in this field say that eventually the jobs being assigned to robots are bound to get even more complex.
For example, Sally the salad making robot, which is built by Deepak Sekar’s whimsically named company Chowbotics, does a great job assembling and mixing a salad based on ingredients pre-loaded by a chef.
“What is very difficult for a robot to do is prepare those ingredients, chopping and dicing and slicing, it’s one of the hardest things to automate,” says Sekar.
At present, Sally is working inside the cafeteria of an undisclosed tech company, where, he says, it allows employees working late to “enjoy the same quality salad they might get from the chef during the day.”
Sekar and his team are continually tweaking Sally’s algorithms and robotic chops, and have given it the ability to make a variety of Indian and Chinese bowl meals. “Getting robots to work flawlessly across hundreds of locations is not easy,” he says. “But this is coming, and it’s going to change restaurants.”
Tech has already changed up the popular notion of what a burger restaurant can be. The McDonald’s model, which in a way was the first mechanized approach to burger-making with humans filling the roles of robots, has given way in this century to more hand-crafted burger places such as Shake Shack.
But that’s now under threat by Creator, whose riveting robot has commanded the attention of legions since it’s unveiling here last fall.
Robots can create a 'utopian world'
There are occasional failures — one of the two Creator burger machines conked out during a recent visit, causing lines of an hour which did not thin — but mostly founder Vardakostas is bullish on the future.
“I like to think we’re creating a more creative world, a more utopian world,” he says. "Creator is automating a major segment of food for the first time, one where you get high-quality ingredients often from local suppliers, you’re getting big chefs who have offered to program our machines to make their favorite burgers, and you’re getting it at a good price.”
As Vardakostas tells it, his obsession with this idea was born while “flipping about 300,000 burgers” for his parents at their Dana Point, California, eatery.
In college, he majored in physics and started to think about how robots could be made to automate, to perfection, the tedious jobs of slicing a bun, tomatoes and onion, and doling out precise amounts of seasoning.
One Creator burger favorite, called The Recreator, calls for exactly 1 gram of habanero sea salt. “Any more, and it would ruin the burger, but the robot gets it right,” he says.
“Creators of new technologies need to also be good shepherds of that technology,” he says. “You need to make careful choices, because this all can be abused. All I can say is, we have created a machine designed for a world that we who work here all want to live in.”
By Marco della Cava
April 6, 2019
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