Can a Machine Build a Better Hamburger?

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Can a Machine Build a Better Hamburger?

[Photographs: David Kover]

For all the assembly-line efficiency that the McDonald's and Burger Kings of this world bring to the process of fast food cookery, they still have to rely on an army of minimum-wage workers to make their hamburgers. At San Francisco's Momentum Machines, they're betting on the idea that a machine can build a better burger than a high school sophomore who earns $8.43 an hour.

Visit Momentum Machines' laboratory space, and you come across what appears to be a giant Erector Set. However, rather than a race car or a space ship, the contraption built by Alex Vardakostas and his partners has barbecue knobs and transparent cylinders housing shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles. When it's finished, their machine will tackle the burger-making process all the way from grinding the meat and stamping it into patties, to cooking it and sliding it between a bun with all the fixings.

Vardakostas grew up with firsthand exposure to the labor that goes into the burger-making process—his father owns a mini-chain of burger joints in Southern California. He turned his childhood experience into the idea for a company. "I thought, 'What's the one tool a restaurant could have to destroy its competition'" Vardakostas told us. He estimates that their invention will save the standard quick-service restaurant $135,000 a year in wages, and build a more consistent product.

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Burger conveyor

However, rather than making plans to peddle their apparatus to existing fast food restaurants, Vardakostas and his friends seem more interested in starting a restaurant of their own. "Fast food sucks, and we want to change all that," says Vardakostas.

They envision a restaurant with a menu similar to that of a Five Guys or In-N-Out, but without the vast, stainless steel kitchen full of cooking equipment and scrambling employees. All the food prep will be done by machines, with human staff working the register and delivering the food. "Maybe we'll have the cashier behind a podium with just a garden or vines on the wall behind them," Vardakostas said, explaining one vision for how their machine-powered restaurant would be a serene landscape compared to the typical fast food environment.

As science guys, Vardkostas and crew envision one day being able to outfit their machine with cutting edge technology, à la the Modernist Cuisine burger. And they stress that, no matter what cooking method they ultimately use, the burgers produced by their contraption will be fully customizable. Want a patty with 20 percent pork in the grind, or a special kind of cheese? Their machine can do that.

However, these days, they're still working on making sure their machine can properly assemble the most basic burger with a pre-cooked patty. At last check, they'd hit 95 percent accuracy and had set a timeframe of 11 months before they might be able to launch their restaurant concept. Do you think the burger industry is ready to meet its new machine overlords?

Click through the slideshow to get a look at the Momentum Machines burger-bot!

About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. He's not above chewing on a greasy burger wrapper here or there, as long as he doesn't end up ruining a reasonably presentable shirt in the process.

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