Alex Vardakostas has been on a decade-long quest to build a robot that can prepare the perfect cheeseburger. It could also put his family out of work.
Weeks after he was born, Alex Vardakostas' mother strapped him into a baby carrier and went back to work flipping burgers at A's, the Southern California fast-food restaurant that she and her husband owned. When Vardakostas was a toddler, the town's local newspaper, Dana Point News, ran a photograph of him peering through the restaurant's walk-up window. As he grew older, he often played in the back of the kitchen among pallets of hamburger buns while his parents worked. At 8, he started filling drink orders, standing on top of a milk crate to reach the soda machine. Sometimes he ran food experiments, soaking burger meat in Worcestershire sauce to see if it would taste better. He learned snippets of Spanish from the line cooks, Apolinar and Ernie, and at 12 he started working beside them.
Now 33, Vardakostas lives in San Francisco, and for the past nine years, he's been building a robot that can cook and assemble around 100 burgers an hour—keeping pace with a typical fast-food staff—with little human intervention. "Our device isn't meant to make employees more efficient," Vardakostas told a reporter in 2012. "It's meant to totally obviate them."
That quote turned the entrepreneur into a Silicon Valley caricature overnight, a cautionary note in think pieces foretelling the robot revolution, worker displacement be damned. (It didn't help that Vardakostas looks the part of a dashing tech villain, with dark, wavy hair and a muscular build credited to weight lifting and a red-meat-heavy diet.) But six years on, he's as adamant as ever. Sprawled on a couch in the robot workshop of his company, Momentum Machines, he raises his voice over the whir of an industrial saw. "I'm abso-fucking-lutely trying to obviate that role," he says, miming the flip of a burger, over and over, eyes fixed on the imaginary patty. "As a society, if we're pushing to keep people in a burger-flipping role, we're doing something wrong."
Vardakostas insists he isn't the heartless disruptor he's been made out to be. His company isn't about destroying jobs, he says; it's about shaping the future of fast food—one in which humans will still have an important place. His skeptics will soon be able to see that vision for themselves: This summer, he's opening the doors to a San Francisco restaurant called Creator and unveiling his gleaming burger bot—a surprisingly beautiful copper and wood machine, its spotless glass chutes stacked with vivid towers of tomato, onion, lettuce, and pickle.
Just off Highway 1 in the surfing town of Dana Point, Vardakostas' mom, Maheen, still works seven days a week. The slight 66-year-old stands over the A's grill wielding a spatula, a hairnet stretched over her dark bun and a red apron around her waist, waiting for her son to put her out of a job.
Angelo Vardakostas sailed into Los Angeles on a Greek commercial ship in 1955. Greeks were opening diners across the country at the time—mom-and-pop analogs to the McDonald's, Carl's Jr., and Kentucky Fried Chicken chains that were multiplying in the postwar sprawl—and Angelo hopped off at the port and started looking for a job. He worked as a dishwasher and bartender at a string of restaurants, eventually snagging a position waiting tables at a fancy Beverly Hills bistro. (Once he was sent to a table with the ingredients for Caesar salad dressing, intended to be mixed tableside; not knowing any better, he poured the raw egg directly into the salad.) By the early 1970s, Angelo had saved enough to make a down payment on a joint called Archie's BBQ in the fast-food hub of Downey, California, a few miles away from the original Taco Bell. He rechristened Archie's as A's. Figuring he could save money, he later told his son, he kept the same sign and pried off the other letters.
After a few years, Angelo decamped and opened another A's location 50 miles south, in beachy Dana Point. In 1979, a pair of twentysomething sisters spotted a "help wanted" sign in the window. They had recently arrived from Iran, having fled the Islamic Revolution, and Angelo hired them on the spot.
The elder sister, Maheen, had won a national math championship when she was 17 and had graduated with a master's degree from the University of Tehran. Before leaving the country, she worked as a civil engineer for the Iranian Air Force. "I was so depressed when I got here," she remembers. "My career was gone." But the 27-year-old applied her methodical nature to her new tasks at A's, taking inventory and handling large orders during the lunch rush. While Maheen was brooding and detail-oriented, Angelo was easygoing. She found him charming. "He always brought humor," she says. The couple married in 1982. "We didn't have time to date," Maheen says, with a laugh. Alex was born in 1984, and two years later the family opened another A's outpost in San Juan Capistrano, 20 minutes from Dana Point. A year later, Alex's brother, George, was born.
Business picked up in the new location, and when Vardakostas was in grade school the family moved into a sprawling ranch house in San Juan Capistrano, where they added a tiled pool in the back. Vardakostas started working the grill, sneaking free food to friends from his private middle school between shifts. Some of the kids took to calling him Varda-Cheeseburger, a taunting twist on his last name. "My parents would come to the school dirty from work," Vardakostas says. "I had a chip on my shoulder." He got in a few fistfights, but never dared to tell his parents.
When Vardakostas reached high school, he says, his father started taking the boys on weekly trips to the local bookstore. "We'd drink frappuccinos," George recalls, "and everyone would pick their own book." While Angelo flipped through The Wall Street Journal, Vardakostas paged through books on science and physics. After graduating from Capistrano Valley High School with middling grades, Vardakostas headed to nearby Saddleback College. He washed and detailed cars to make extra money, eating for free twice a day at A's. In 2006, Vardakostas transferred to UC Santa Barbara to study physics. A classmate and friend, Steffanie Hughes, remembers him as a preppy kid, typically clad in a pink polo and Jack Purcells. She was impressed by his intelligence and intrigued by his unusual living arrangement. For his first few months in Santa Barbara, Vardakostas was staying at a Motel 6. He would spend hours studying in the driver's seat of his used Mercedes—a gift from his dad when he transferred to UCSB—which he liked to park at the beach. Though he loved his classes on quantum mechanics and electromagnetics, he says, his thoughts would often return to his parents and their longtime employees passing years in the A's kitchen, cooking burger after burger. An idea came to him his junior year, as he lay awake at 4 am in a bout of insomnia: "What if I could create a robotic kitchen?" The idea excited him. "Once you have a vision about how things could be better, it grows like a weed," he says. A couple of weeks before graduation, he told Hughes about his burger bot scheme. Her reaction was one he'd hear repeatedly in the ensuing decade. "You're going to displace workers," she told him.
After graduating in 2007, Vardakostas got a job automating data at a semiconductor company. Still, he says, he was fixated on the idea of a burger bot. "I was thinking, why the hell isn't anybody doing this?" He installed design software on his laptop and started studying robotics after work. Within two years, he quit his job and began building crude burger-making robot prototypes in his parents' garage. First up: the tomato slicer, pieced together for $25 using an Allen key set, PVC piping, and some balsa wood he bought at Home Depot.
Maheen urged him to get out of the burger business. His brother was baffled by his garage tinkering. "I mean, why don't you want a sexier job? Make the next iPhone," George told him. One night, a guy overheard Vardakostas talking about his burger bot at an Orange County bar and blurted out, "If my kid did that, I would shoot him." Vardakostas stopped telling people about his plan.
Momentum Machines CEO Alex Vardakostas samples robot-made burgers at Creator, his San Francisco restaurant.
By 2010, Vardakostas' robot was starting to show promise, but he knew he'd need heavy machinery to build a working prototype. He joined TechShop, a DIY makerspace in Menlo Park, and couch-crashed with Hughes, who had landed a job at Apple and was living in San Jose. Intimidated by the CNC tools, he introduced himself to a twentysomething guy in work boots he'd noticed expertly working the milling machine. The guy, Steven Frehn, was a mechanical engineer and recent Stanford grad—"one of these genius kids," Vardakostas thought. Frehn grew up in a dusty stretch of Southern California making sketches of electric cars and cities crowned with solar panels. In high school, he landed an internship working for NASA, automating sensors at an Air Force base. Now he was building his own solar panels and sweeping TechShop's floor in exchange for free use of the equipment. When Frehn asked what he was working on, Vardakostas was cagey. "A machine to cut vegetables," he replied.
The two struck up an unlikely friendship. Vardakostas is charismatic and creative, Hughes says, while Frehn is grounded and practical. Eventually, Vardakostas revealed his concept for the burger bot. "I immediately thought it was amazing," Frehn says, "but it sounded like a lot of work."
Vardakostas returned to his machine—and his parents' garage—in Orange County. When he didn't want to make the six-hour drive to San Jose, he would occasionally send Frehn robotic components via same-day delivery for quick alterations; Frehn would use TechShop's tools and rush-mail the part back. After about seven months, Vardakostas' makeshift vegetable slicer was functional.
Encouraged, Vardakostas moved on to building the conveyor belt that would move the burger down an automated assembly line, the bun slicer and toaster, and the electric grill. In the fall of 2011, after two years, a burger emerged from his machine. The robot was viable.
Now Vardakostas needed money. Hughes arranged a meeting with Lemnos Labs, one of Silicon Valley's first hardware incubators, and in November of 2011, two Lemnos partners flew to the Vardakostas home in San Juan Capistrano to visit the entrepreneur-in-waiting. Vardakostas delivered his pitch in his childhood bedroom; Lemnos partner Helen Boniske remembers that physics books were strewn on the floor.
Then he led the partners to his parents' three-car garage, now dominated by a 6-foot-tall burger beast. Vardakostas clicked Place Order on his laptop, and the machine sprang into action. A presliced bun ran through a toaster on a squeaky conveyor belt. The bottom half slid down a chute beneath the vegetable slicers, where robotic blades cut pickles, tomatoes, and onions. The patty traveled through a charbroiler on a separate conveyor belt, then glided down a chute onto the bottom bun. The top bun dropped onto the sandwich and a mechanical arm pushed the entire burger into a white paper bag. "For one dude to build this thing in a garage," Boniske says, "it was an incredible feat of engineering." Lemnos offered Vardakostas about $50,000 in seed money and invited him to join their ranks.
Two months later, Vardakostas moved to San Francisco and set up his workshop in Lemnos' SoMa district headquarters. He posted an ad on Craigslist seeking machining engineers and hired two recent college grads: Jack McDonald, a mechanical engineer from UC Berkeley, and Lucas Lincoln, a roboticist from the University of Utah. Frehn soon joined the group full-time.
The foursome set to work building a new, improved burger bot prototype, sometimes pulling days so long, Vardakostas says, that he slept in a sleeping bag under his desk. But because he wasn't looking to sell his machine to fast-food chains, venture capital firms were wary of investing. By now, Vardakostas had become convinced that his company could transform not only the repetitive act of burger making but also the entire fast-food business model, from the ingredients used to the wage structure. His dream, he says, is to open a chain of Creator restaurants across the country, delivering high-quality, inexpensive food to the masses. "It was right on the edge, man," McDonald recalls. "We believed in the idea, but it's a lot harder to convince other people that it's the future." To stretch their seed money, they often ate their machine's own imperfect trial-run burgers for lunch.
One day that fall, Avidan Ross, a roboticist turned venture capitalist, visited Lemnos Labs and spotted the burger bot across the room. "I said 'What is that?!' " he remembers. "I have to meet these people." Whereas other investors at the time were "caught up in iPhone apps, trying to find the next Snapchat," he says, his newly launched VC firm, now called Root Ventures, was focused on hardware. In a stroke of luck for Vardakostas, Ross was a kindred tinkerer: He had built his own pizza oven and several barbecue contraptions in his backyard, one of which tweeted its temperature every five minutes. Ross had also given a lot of thought to how robotics might be used to automate costly cooking techniques. Early in 2013, he wrote Momentum Machines a check for about $300,000. Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures soon followed.
Momentum Machines isn't the first to attempt to automate restaurant kitchens. In the 1960s, the American Machine & Foundry Company unveiled a fast-food device that churned out burgers, hot dogs, fries, and milkshakes at a Long Island drive-in. An attendant punched in the orders on a push-button dashboard that controlled the machinery. Though the contraption saved roughly $1,900 in cook's wages each month, it also cost $1,500 to lease. It never caught on. More recently, fast-food chains have been taking small steps toward automation, especially in ordering, but also in the more complicated process of making food. McDonald's has been installing self-service kiosks as part of its "Experience of the Future" campaign. Chains from Taco Bell to Burger King have adopted ordering apps. This spring, Little Caesars received a patent for a pizza-making robot. Over the past two years, Miso Robotics in Pasadena, California, has been developing Flippy, a burger-flipping robotic arm that works with most restaurants' preexisting grills. Flippy was slated to be deployed at CaliBurger restaurants around the country this year, but its March debut was inauspicious: After a couple of hours at the chain's Pasadena location, it fell behind on orders and was decommissioned for improvements.
The technical complexities, coupled with the cost of building a kitchen bot, mean that it will take time before robotics transforms the fast-food industry. Still, chains continue to pursue automation because they think it will boost their profits; labor costs typically make up around 30 percent of restaurant expenses. "The fact of the matter is businesses will automate when it's cost-effective," says Teofilo Reyes, a policy expert at Restaurant Opportunities United, a nonprofit that advocates better conditions for fast-food workers. Replacing multiple salaries with the one-time cost of a robot is an enticing business strategy, especially in an industry with a high turnover rate. Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, predicts that within the next five to 10 years, major fast-food chains will be able to reduce staff by 30 to 40 percent due to automation.
The impact of such cuts on overall employment rates is unknown, says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at UC Berkeley. "The big mistake everyone makes is they can't foresee the new jobs that will come online because of the technology," she argues. The car may have put blacksmiths out of business, but it also created assembly-line jobs. Of course, automation in manufacturing has now put assembly-line workers at risk. They're being replaced by robots, overseen by a small group of humans with the expertise to manage them.
1. OrderingDiners customize their meals through Creator's app, which sends the information to the bot.—
2. Toasted bun
Air pressure pushes the brioche bun through a blade that slices it in half. It travels down a vertical toaster before dropping into a compostable container.—
The bun moves on a conveyor belt below chutes of tomatoes, onions, pickles, and shredded lettuce. The robot cleaves a fresh portion from each of the vegetables.—
Hunks of brisket and chuck are tumbled with seasonings in a vacuum chamber. The bot grinds and shapes 5 ounces of meat into a puck, then a mechanized arm deposits the patty between two griddles.—
The patty is cooked at 350 degrees until medium rare. When it's done, a mechanized spatula places the patty onto the open bun.—
Convection heat melts shredded cheese. Requested sauces and seasonings—including coffee-flavored salt, chipotle powder, and curry ketchup—are deposited from various dispensers.—
7. Quality control
The burger emerges from the robot, where it's checked by a human worker. —L.S.
Vardakostas won't share his financial projections, but his business model makes some ambitious assumptions in its path to success. He says that the robot will eventually make burgers more efficiently than a typical fast-food restaurant, though at its current rate—about 100 burgers per machine, per hour—a McDonald's-style restaurant could keep up. App-based ordering means that Creator will be able to serve more customers, faster. The restaurant may also shore up its bottom line by serving beer, wine, and fries, items with a high profit margin. Vardakostas says he plans to spend around 45 percent of his revenue on burger ingredients, which include pasture-raised beef and organic vegetables. Most restaurants spend roughly half that on total food costs.
To Erik Brynjolfsson, coauthor of The Second Machine Age, it makes sense that Momentum Machines is opening its own restaurant rather than shopping its bot around to existing chains. "You can't just pop the robot into a restaurant and leave the whole rest of the business the same," he says. "You have to reinvent the roles of the people, the types of ingredients, your price points. Replacing a human burger-flipper with a machine isn't the big payoff—the payoff is inventing a totally new kind of restaurant."
While robots will serve as Creator's chefs and cashless cashiers, they won't be without human support. This spring, Momentum Machines hired its first restaurant employees, including a general manager, a host to explain how the smartphone ordering process works, and "burger buffs" trained to maintain the machine and deliver meals to tables. Up to nine employees will work during Creator's peak hours—on par with a standard fast-food restaurant—and Vardakostas says he'll pay them $16 an hour, $1 above San Francisco's minimum wage.
All this raises the question: Can Creator actually make money, or will it become another overhyped gimmick propped up by VC funding? "It's to be determined," says Aaron Noveshen, founder of the restaurant consultancy the Culinary Edge and an early Momentum Machines adviser. "If it doesn't take five people to stand next to the robot to make it work, then they can reach profitability." Helen Boniske believes Alex could charge more than his proposed price of $6 to $7 per burger, with an eye to Creator's eventual expansion.
While Creator is a contained testing ground, for now, the idea of robotic kitchens catching on throughout the restaurant industry is unsettling to many. "For some reason, with our burger bot, people have a visceral reaction: This machine is doing exactly what you see a human doing," acknowledges McDonald, one of Momentum's original engineers. There is something especially troubling about fast-food workers being tossed aside—perhaps because those jobs are viewed as a place for people who have limited options. The median income for a fast-food worker is around $21,000, and more than half receive some public assistance. "The reality is that many people who work in fast food may be well suited for routine jobs," Ford says.
Alex balks at such sentiments. He sees burger flippers as trapped by their jobs, not clinging to them. "You don't grow up next to fast-food workers without realizing these people are capable of so much more—it becomes this sort of haunting thing," he says. "People say, oh, flipping burgers is the only thing they can do. That's fucking bigoted. Dude, no, we can do a lot more than flip burgers. We just haven't had a chance."
For a line cook who just lost his job, though, Vardakostas' vision may offer little consolation.
Momentum Machines engineers receive real-time obstruction alerts from the burger bot during testing.
Vardakostas loads stacks of pickles, tomatoes, and onions into his machine. Each topping is sliced to order.
At Creator in San Francisco, Vardakostas walks over to inspect his machine's latest burger. For the past year, the restaurant's unfinished dining area has been his second office, his 50 employees gliding between the two buildings on scooters and skateboards. At the moment, the restaurant windows are frosted over to thwart oglers, and the rare visitor is required to sign a nondisclosure agreement and cover their phone's camera lens with a sticker. It's mid-April, and the team is customizing burger orders from Creator's smartphone app for the first time, requesting extra cheese or chipotle powder instead of jalapeño salt. Half a dozen developers and software engineers are seated at the dining tables with their laptops, obsessively tracking the real-time progress of the two identical robots across the room.
Amid the bustle of machinery, finishing touches are being put in place to make the space feel more like a homey café than, say, a dystopian factory. One wall is painted with yellow Fibonacci spirals. Burger ingredients chill in glass-front refrigerators alongside meticulously written explanations of their provenance. Customers will be invited to browse books while they wait for their orders, from design tomes to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.
After nearly a decade of R&D, Vardakostas says, "we had our pick" of VC firms during last year's fund-raising round. He recently received investments from Root Ventures, Zynga cofounder Justin Waldron, Great Oaks Venture Capital in New York, and K5 Ventures in Orange County. According to its 2017 SEC filings, Momentum Machines raised $18.4 million in funds.
Despite his insistence that he's not selling his robot, Vardakostas claims his company has heard from fast-food chains and sports stadiums that are interested in purchasing it. "We were able to get them an introduction to Burger King really early on," Boniske says. "It was just too early to have a substantial discussion. Burger King's reps said 'I don't believe it's possible.' " It's hard to know if Vardakostas will sell in the end, but it's easy to imagine. Maybe Creator's opening will be an inflection point, like the day in 1948 when two McDonald brothers decided to make their customers walk up to the counter to collect their burgers, rather than hiring servers to deliver them to cars. Maybe nothing much will change at all.
In Dana Point, Maheen says she awaits the day she can install one of her son's burger robots at A's. She says she sees his machines as the next chapter in their family's American success story, payoff for all those years she and her husband spent in the kitchen. "You know who wants to lose their jobs?" Maheen asks wryly, slouched in a booth at A's during a weekend lull. "It's the managers." Once her son's long-promised burger bot arrives, she says, she may even consider retiring.
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