As robots move from farms and food processing facilities to restaurants, they will need to provide diners with a compelling dining experience, not just a novel one, according to Creator, a food robotics startup in San Francisco.
The San Francisco-based company last year hired Martin Buehler to be its vice president of engineering. He is an experienced roboticist and was a keynote speaker at RoboBusiness 2017. Robotics Business Review recently chatted with Buehler about his work at Creator.
“We actually have two robots here at our restaurant currently serving burgers,” he said. “We get to bring robots to an entirely new market segment. It’s extremely exciting.”
Robots provide novel dining experience
Rather than building robots for existing fast-food or fast-casual chains, Creator’s restaurant “democratizes” access to fresher, better-sourced cuisine, said the company.
“Creator uses robotics and technology to bring a new dining experience to our guests,” Buehler explained.
“That involves the whole package deal of the restaurant, the ambiance, the décor, and the design, including the robots themselves,” he said. “They’re not just cold, hard pieces of technology, but they’re beautifully crafted and aesthetically appealing.”
“When you order your burger, you actually get to see it made completely from scratch,” added Buehler. “Then you get to bite into this culinary masterpiece that you were able to customize to your desires. So it’s really an end-to-end experience.”
“We’re not just making robot that’s fast and cheap and cranks out food that we would sell to other companies; we want to own this whole experience and grow it and deliver it,” he said.
Ingredients for innovation
Buehler noted that his diverse experience in robotics has helped him at Creator.
“If you look at my trajectory — I’m fortunate to have worked at some really amazing places, from Boston Dynamics and iRobot to Medtronic and Disney,” he said. “From Boston Dynamics, I was very focused on rapid iterative design, break and learn, break and fix.”
“On the Medtronic side, [I learned] the whole aspect of developing and delivering a robot that’s safe and respects all of the regulatory requirements, particularly for the food safety,” Buehler recalled. “From Disney Imagineering, the key insight or paradigm is that technology is really subservient to the ultimate experience that we’re delivering.”
“The robot is the enabler, and we as engineers are working with the business owners and culinary experts,” he said. “It’s not about the technology; it’s about providing value, having the right product-market fit, and customers coming again.”
Creator preps for big appetites
Creator’s team has been working for eight years on the burger-preparing robots, which are getting good reviews on Yelp.
“A lot of techies around here enjoy watching the robot make the burger, but our prime selling point is really the quality of the burger,” said Buehler. “The key is delivering a better product at a better price.”
“I see it as a bit of an analogue with Disney. When you visit a theme park, and you interact with a character, you suspend disbelief and are excited to meet the character, not a robot,” he noted. “Come and have the best burger you’ve ever had, and by the way, this was possible because of a robot.”
“It has been a process for us, opening up a ginormous new market segment, which we’re only scratching the surface of,” he said. “We want to open more restaurants, so we’re designing robots for manufacturing and assembly. Scaling the business is a big but doable engineering challenge.”
“While hamburgers are the biggest segment — in the billions — that’s only a small part of the entire fresh-food market,” Buehler said. “We’re quite familiar with other companies in our market, and it’s great to see other companies getting into this space. It’s a validation that there’s a lot of opportunity.”
Anatomy of a robot-built gourmet burger
Why did Creator choose hamburgers to assemble with robots?
“It’s a natural choice. Our founder, Alex Vardakostas, grew up in Orange County, where from a young age, he was flipping burgers,” said Buehler. “He was quite motivated to automate his job, and he knows the business really well.”
“From a market pick, burgers are a great place to be,” he said. “We’ve already proven with our restaurant that we have an amazing product-market fit. Our guests love our food, and we are using robotics not just to provide the same thing that everybody else has but cheaper and faster.”
“Based on automation, we can put a higher percentage of product costs into the quality of the ingredients,” said Buehler. “There’s nobody else who grinds the meat to order; cuts the tomatoes to order; and cuts, butters, and toasts buns to order.”
Ordering up better jobs
When asked about plans for Creator’s robots to prepare side orders, Buehler said, “That makes sense, but right now, even though we use robotics to save some labor, we still have eight to 11 people in the restaurant. In fact, by scaling the restaurant, we’ll create lots of better jobs.”
Just as work on self-driving cars has helped with autonomous mobile robots for warehousing, so too has the confluence of cheaper computing and the streamlined integration of actuators helped service robots develop, he observed.
“I’ve been in this business for a few decades, and it was always such a struggle to build robots,” recalled Buehler. “They always ended up being so expensive, so it was hard to get this value proposition.”
“It’s great to build a robot that can do amazing things, but can we deliver it at a cost that people can actually afford it?” he said. “Finally, it’s getting to a point where you can do that, and as result, you see a lot of new markets for robots popping up, such as logistics, self-driving cars, and food.”
Dining with data
“One of the benefits that’s not often talked about is the way we’re doing things with robotics and big data,” said Buehler. “We have all this data about who buys what, when — the distribution of orders during the lunch period.”
“We’re always working to increase throughput and offer more choices,” Buehler said. “We already have several featured burgers that were made by famous chefs on our menu.”