The Human-First Design of SF's First Robot Burger Joint
With homey plants, warming wood and brass accents, and inviting refrigerator cases, you can almost forget there's no human at the Creator's helm. (Ryan Darcy)

The Human-First Design of SF's First Robot Burger Joint


Food and tech—the Bay Area's pastimes; and ever the twain do meet. As engineered ingredients keep creeping their way into our dinners (ahem, Impossible Meat) and robots take the place of delivery drivers and servers, local foodies stand divided in how to take this new evolution in dining: abomination, or the raddest thing since sliced bread?

The latest player in the tech-meets-food game is getting plenty hype: To be sure, its burger-making robot is unexpectedly and beautifully rendered and, yeah, the whole process is kind of neat. But what ever happened to service with a smile, things like humanity and warmth? Through careful design, Creator hopes to breathe life into the whole automated restaurant thing.

Very much unlike Eatsa, that ATM of quinoa bowls that didn't last long, and Cafe X, where a robot barista awaits to serve you a cappuccino straight out of science fiction, Creator is aiming at a human-centered experience. The brainchild of founders Alex Vadarkostas, David Bordow, and Steve Frehn—who have both restaurant- and tech-world experience among them—Creator may sling machine-made burgers, but the restaurant itself feels familiar, like most any other stylish eatery you've been in lately.

"We didn't want to look like a vending machine or a techie-industrial-oriented restaurant," says CEO Vardakostas, who grew up in his parents' own Southern California burger restaurant and later studied physics at UC Santa Barbara. "For us, the most important parts of the project were the food and the people who were going to eat that food. So we decided to shape a place people can empathize with."

Given that two big machines dominate the very-open kitchen, this was an ambitious challenge.

The burger-making robot. (Aubrie Pick)

The team hired award-winning designer Per Salvaag, founder of Berkeley- and Oslo-based design firm Montaag (notable for work with BMW, Ferrari, and Peugeot), to come up with a design that would welcome people in rather than turn them off.

"When we started the project, the focus of our design exercise was on establishing and creating a trust. So we built a machine that has an ergonomic form, that is fluid, that spreads a sense of warmth—when you get close to it, it shows you everything that is inside. This brings up a sort of curiosity and excitement which is engaging," Salvaag says. The result: a robot unlike any we've ever seen before, evocative of a steamer ship but curvy and contemporary in a Scandinavian palette of white, blonde wood, and copper. A glass display case housing the buns (made fresh daily) and toppings makes the process totally transparent.

Books, design objets, and plants lend a human touch to the interior.(Ryan Darcy)

"Transparency was one of our priorities," says Vardakostas. "When you step into Creator, there isn't a separation between the back and the front of the house. Everything is there to be seen, from the food that is processed in the machine to the food that is stored inside the big refrigerators. There is no visual distraction, like the overwhelming feeling that you can have in a typical fast food [place] with all the signage, but there is a sense of calmness and tranquility."

The 2,200-square-foot SoMa space feels refined and minimalist, a hybrid between a cozy coffee shop, an efficient fast-casual eatery, and a proper restaurant with high-quality food and a flair for the fanciful. Pale wood communal tables invite you stay a while; you might even flip through a book that served as inspiration for the restaurant—the shelves are stocked with such titles as Experiences in Visual Thinking by Robert H. McKim; The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman; Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel; and Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. Further warming up the joint are artworks, black-and-white photographs, and life-giving plants.

A mural inspired by the Fibonacci sequence.(Ryan Darcy)

All the details here have been carefully considered, from the inconsequential—think leaf-shaped to-go boxes—to the architectural. "The ceiling, for instance, is an organic form that generates a flow between two spaces, the dining area and the device area," explains cofounder David Bordow, who's cooked at Chez Panisse and also studied and practiced mechanical engineering and product design. "It creates visual separation, as well as focuses attention on the devices and the pulls guests into the light and airy eating zone."

Speaking of lighting, it's another creative component. "We were inspired by the Fibonacci pattern, which recalls a sunflower. We simplified and projected it onto the ceiling to create the spiral pattern that the lights form," says Bordow. The Fibonacci motif is so meaningful to the trio that it became the company's logo and also made its way into an art mural on the wall.

So the design is nice, you say, but what of hospitality? Also unlike those aforementioned robot food spots, Creator has a host who will seat you at a table, and servers to take your order on iPhones much like you buy a laptop at the Apple store (eventually, you'll DIY via Creator's app). And many menu items, including sauces, are prepped and made by humans in the back.

Of course, while it's the novelty that will first get you in the door and the design that will make you comfortable while you eat, it's the burger, ultimately, that decides whether you'll come back. Creator has teamed with a top culinary R&D group (which works with the likes of Momofuku and The French Laundry) and also collaborated with kitchen vets including Nick Balla (Duna, Bar Tartine) and Tu David Phu (Top Chef) to offer original, chef-created burgers ($6) with sustainably raised beef and McVickers pickles, SF-approved sides—think salads of seasonal grains or shaved roots, as well as, of course, thick-cut fries—Coletta gelatos, and housemade soda pairings. There is also a rotating beer and wine selection from local purveyors.

While waiting for its official public opening later this summer, Creator has opened the space for preview events throughout July, which have already sold out. Join the waitlist for lunches in August (tickets are $6). // Creator, 680 Folsom St. (SoMa),

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