Beef, bun, lettuce, tomato, cheese … there is nothing more American than the classic burger.
The origin of the modern hamburger is highly disputed; many claim it was invented at Wisconsin’s Seymour Fair in 1885, when Charlie Nagreen produced a handheld sandwich by inserting a beef meatball in between two slices of bread. Others argue that the first documented appearance of beef patties in a bun was at Oscar Weber Wilby’s Fourth of July celebration in Oklahoma in 1891. The United States Library of Congress recalls differently—crediting Louis Lassen in 1900 with the first beef patty served between two slices of toast.
The burger’s past is uncertain, but as residents of Daly City, California, can tell you, its future may be in the hands of robots.
Proximity—a concept we at Outthinker have been exploring this year and on which I am co-authoring a book with Rob Wolcott to be released next year—represents emerging technologies and new business models enabling companies to produce and provide products and services ever closer to the moment of consumer demand in time and space. Hungry for a burger? It’s ready and waiting for you.
Sure, White Castle has been serving fast-food burgers for a century. But Creator, a California-based quick-service restaurant with a burger-making robot, is taking it a step further by fully embracing proximity principles and applying them to the dining experience.
Founders Steven Frhen and Alex Vardakostas debuted their concept of a robot cooking burgers at their restaurant in San Francisco in 2018. After a brief pause due to Covid-19, they returned in 2021 with a location in Daly City. Today, their robot can prepare a burger in four minutes flat that delivers proximity benefits to company and consumers.
Proximity technologies (3D printing, automation and robotics, internet of things [IoT], 5G connectivity, and more) are driving us to a world in which its possible to give people what they want, where and when they want it.
These four proximity principles will define where our lives are headed:
- Moment-of-use (MOU) production and provision
- Personalization at scale
- Data and analytics shared across ecosystems
- Real-time learning and adapting systems
Let’s take a deeper look and consider how Creator is embodying each one:
1. Moment-of-use (MOU) production and provision
What MOU makes possible is the ability for companies to wait for actual demand. Not forecasted demand, not likely demand, but actual customers ready to spend.
The performance advantage of speed isn’t about doing what we already do faster. It’s about being ready to respond instantaneously as demand arises rather than trying to guess and spending a lot on things that enough customers may never want, thus greater customization and less waste.
For example, all burgers at Creator are made-to-order. No pre-made patties waiting in the freezer. The meat is only ground once an order is placed.
2. Personalization at scale
Most businesses believe they are customer centric, but in fact they’re organized to serve groups of customers rather than individual customers. For example, In-N-Out Burger serves great burgers, but their menu is simple. Customers can choose one or two patties, cheese or no cheese, and, for those in-the-know, the not-so-secret “animal-style” addition.
Traditionally, companies that wanted to provide exceptional levels of customization have required high price points to be profitable. Proximity re-defines what it means to be customer centric. By collapsing tradeoffs between customization and efficiency, proximity models offer dramatically better solutions for delivering truly personalized experiences.
Creator’s robot holds 25 different seasonings that can be controlled to the milliliter, opening up an array of options for consumers to create their own taste preferences. Customers download the restaurant’s app and adjust the seasonings and sauces they like. These aren’t your typical fast-food chain offerings—they include choices such as chipotle sea salt and sunflower seed tahini. The burgers cost $6 each, where similar burgers at a typical quick-service restaurant in San Francisco would cost $12-18.
3. Data and analytics shared across ecosystems
The essence of proximity is postponing as much value-add as possible until the last moment necessary to fulfill demand. This requires detailed knowledge of who might demand what, where and when, which also requires knowing where, when and how to bring the right resources to bear at that precise moment.
After personalizing their burger choice, Creator users can save the settings for the next visit. They can share them with friends, allowing someone like a well-known chef to create their own burger for fans to replicate. When consumers use the app, the company receives data on the most popular taste preferences and could offer you recommendations for other flavor combinations you might like.
4. Real-time learning and adapting systems
With proximity, not only are companies increasingly able to customize products and services at scale for individuals, the feedback mechanisms are enabling companies to shift toward real-time learning that triggers ongoing adaptation.
For example, the Creator robot’s thermal sensors and algorithm determine the ideal grilling time for each patty. Its conveyor belt allows each individual order to travel at a different pace along the line. Today, each robot prepares up to 120 burgers per hour and that number is expected to grow to up to 400 over time. Automated ordering and AI-driven software has evolved to allow customers to know precisely when their order will be ready.
We may not be at the point of Star Wars’ food synthesizers—which could create from raw materials a large variety of food items compatible with unique food tastes—but restaurants like Creator bring us ever closer. The company plans to scale by manufacturing its robots for sale, with a white label option to modify for other restaurant use.
As we watch their progress, many more farmers, grocery stores, and restaurants are applying the same proximity principles to feed us what we desire, when, where and exactly how we crave it.