Leaving the hopper, the buns pulsate as they’re sliced. They then drop into a waiting box to receive a patty that’s been seasoned at the last minute. Squirts of condiments and some fixings are next, then finally the grated cheese.
This is how it works at Creator, the “robot burger” joint on Folsom Street whose website — creator.rest — sounds like the original Sabbath in the Book of Genesis. The Lord took six days to create the entire universe, from quasars to quarks, then chillaxed on Day 7. After eight years of tinkering, Creator is open for lunch in SoMa, serving burgers for two-and-a-half hours a day, Wednesdays through Fridays.
Originally dubbed Momentum Machines, Creator began by selling tickets, but it’s since grown accustomed to the organic flow of the lunch rush. There are several burgers available, including two chef collabs. “Creator vs. the World” is the standard build, with lettuce, onions, tomato, pickles, and cheddar. Smokiness is the primary flavor profile in the others. The Recreator is a little hotter, with two kinds of sea salt. Nick Balla of Duna created the “Dad Burger,” redolent of his restaurant’s Central European flavors, particularly in the housemade “catsup.” The “Aficionado” has the most acid and some wonderful notes from the charred onion jam, but it’s Tu David Phu’s cheese-less and perfectly balanced “Tumami Burger” that wins out because of the earthiness of its shiitakes. You won’t find any hotshot-bait with insane markups, like some $100 triple-patty monstrosity made with uni and gold flakes.
It all sounds very simple. On my first visit, though, I could not have been more put off. It was obscenely over-crowded, with no discernible line. Hordes of people who all looked like they get through life by badging in via lanyard milled around, videoing the burger machine, their elbows akimbo. The workers were clearly stressed, raising their voices to make themselves heard above the mix of white noise and Spotify. Getting my Creator vs. the World took too long, and when the compostable clamshell finally arrived, the messy, partially melted cheese shavings looked like the gooified contents of a hastily opened pencil sharpener. (Apart from the flavorless vegan ranch dressing on the salads, cheese remains the biggest kink in the system. It doesn’t quite land properly, so it looks dumped out.)
But that early meal was the outlier. Every subsequent visit has been consistently excellent, and with manageable crowds and wait-times. In technical terms, Creator is both accurate and precise. All burgers are cooked medium, the Maillard reaction is apparent and satisfying, and while there isn’t much juiciness, there is plenty of flavor — and it’s exactly as described. The fries are salty enough that you don’t really need ketchup, and the stone-fruit drink nails the right level of sweetness.
At the same time, the robot is not a robot. It’s not the middling ramen dispenser in the Metreon or the Cyberdyne Systems-esque hand that makes Americanos at Cafe X. It’s more of a Rube Goldberg device, a transparent and almost unnecessarily analog contraption with copper flaps that hustle the burger along, all housed in beautifully cut wood. The purpose of Creator is not to destroy McDonald’s by cutting labor costs to near zero, either. If anything, Creator is very well-staffed, with at least 14 employees on a Friday. There may have been more who never left the back.
Culinary lead David Bordow ascribes this to the over-staffing that all restaurants do when they open, anticipating attrition. Creator prioritizes the human touch. You don’t order from a kiosk, but from a person. Other people hustle to refill the transparent hoppers of onions or condiments. So many are scurrying that it doesn’t seem as though there’s spare headcount to trim, even as routines establish themselves. It’s not quite fair to describe Creator’s workers as Chaplin-esque proletarians enslaved to the machine as it cranks out 120 burgers an hour at its most efficient pace. They’re necessary because that’s how the machine works — and the machine is how Creator makes such good, affordable burgers.
Bordow has extensive culinary experience, including a stint in Chez Panisse’s garde manger, but he shies from being called a chef. His is a “pretty nontraditional restaurant role,” and a “unique situation where the product is the machine.” For the most part, he works closely with the engineering team and the ingredients team to fix problems, which range from cheese whose milk solids separated when heated to the difficulty that slight variations in bun size can present.
“That’s why we’re open three days a week,” Bordow says. “We’re constantly testing and upgrading and changing things, and once it gets validated, it’s on there.”
If the machine were just a big metal box, everything would be easier. But Creator wanted transparency in every sense of the word, and staring at something as opaque as a safe would be boring. Oddly, however, Bordow says the machine doesn’t have a name — let alone a Twitter account from which it dispenses folksy wisdom. It’s gimmicky enough that the customer base can be entrusted to do most of Creator’s marketing through social media, but there’s still a genuine resistance to anthropomorphization. In part, Bordow and his associates didn’t want the machine — or machines, since there are two of them — to become famous and subsume the importance of the burgers into their personality. Still, you can’t help but look at it chugging away happily, far on the R2-D2 side of the uncanny valley. If it took the Myers-Briggs, it would probably be an ESTJ.
Bordow also evinces a wariness about coming off as a we’re-saving-the-galaxy evangelist. Creator’s mission, he says, is to make the “best quality food for the most people,” and it’s doing so very affordably, with $6 burgers, $3 fries and soft drinks, and $5 beers. Between the labor costs, the obviously considerable capital outlays, and the burger’s low price point, the investors must have deep pockets and a lot of patience. But the company also sounds a bit like the Impossible Burger or the makers of Beyond Meat, firms that want to reduce greenhouse gases by replacing conventionally raised meats in stadiums and cafeterias. Bordow is mum on most details, but it’s fairly apparent that Creator’s business plan is similar. What is it about hamburgers, though, that makes them such an irresistible honeypot for tech types? The de facto American national dish is the gateway drug for products they can introduce to the world.
San Francisco is unique in that there is “a constant flow of people who will spend more than most on all their meals,” Bordow observes. He further reveals that Creator has both a two-year and five-year plan, strongly implying that there’s more to come beyond burgers and more locations beyond SoMa or the FiDi. Throughput is the guiding principle, he says, sounding like a traffic engineer. But Creator is not about congested streets and the timing of stoplights. It’s about meat and how to make it more delicious than the other guy can. The trick is in cooking the burger in a minute and 10 seconds.
“It’s amazing that happens, because airflow through the patty creates a texture and a flavor sensation,” Bordow says. “We were so delighted after we had dialed in the algorithm.”
Creator, 680 Folsom St., creator.rest