My dream to have a robot cook me a hot meal finally came true, and it happened in a New Jersey shopping mall. The RoboBurger is a massive vending machine that grills and serves hot hamburgers on demand -- toasted bun, toppings and all -- without any human help. The first machine launches for the public today at Newport Centre Mall in Jersey City, and I got an early taste of our future with robotic restaurants.
To my disappointment, there were no robot arms flinging my burger on a grill that I could see -- all the action is hidden inside a red box that measures nearly 7 feet tall and 5.4 feet wide, and a giant touchscreen plays animations of what you imagine is happening as you wait. But if you listen closely, you can hear the sizzle and smell the beef as goes from a 4-ounce frozen patty to char-grilled burger. (You can see my experience in the video embedded above.)
It takes seven minutes and $7 (plus tax) for RoboBurger to make a pretty simple hamburger. No pickles, no lettuce or tomato. Just condiments. While the burger gets cooked, the potato-bread bun is getting toasted and put inside a box. The bottom half of the bun gets a squirt of ketchup and mustard. The top half gets a big plop of gooey cheese. Within seconds of the patty finishing cooking, the meat lands on the bun, the box travels down a chute and the box's lid gets flipped closed.
It is not picture perfect, as cheese slides off the side when the bun is flipped over, but it tastes pretty good and has a light crunch from the char. It reminded me of a basic burger I'd make at home in a hurry, without the frills you get at a restaurant. I could see the steam coming out when I lifted the bun -- and when you bite into it, you'll feel that just-off-the-grill heat that you don't get with fast food.
The robot here handles the cleaning, too. After every order, the machine will self-clean by spraying hot water and scraping the grill. It also can run a more thorough, 15-minute cleaning cycle that involves soapy water and sanitizer. The only time human interaction is needed is to resupply materials and clean out the wastewater. (It holds its own water -- no water line hookup needed.)
The RoboBurger team tells me they expect to come by to service it every two or three days -- but can come anytime they need more burgers. The machine holds 50 patties, but no one is ever handling food out in the open at the machine to restock. A facility nearby fills containers of food -- the beef blend is ordered from the famous New York meat supplier Pat LaFrieda, and the buns are Martin's Potato Rolls. Service technicians slide in the containers of food to be dispensed.
I eat a lot of fast food. I also am a child of the '90s, so I will eat anything at a mall. This was better than a fast-food burger. But if I was at a mall, I'd rather head to the food court and sit down at the Johnny Rocket's to get a burger with fries and a shake.
That said, I could totally see myself ordering this at an airport, when I'm by myself and in a hurry for a hot meal. Also this is a perfect fit for a college campus, when students will want food at all hours of the day.
The college student version of me would absolutely order from this machine when options are scarce. When I was in college, if we needed food at 2 a.m. my friends and I would have one choice -- to sustain ourselves on a delivery of something called Pokey Stix. It would have been nice to have a hot burger to get in the building anytime, even if it that burger was a bit messy.
And that's exactly where the RoboBurger team is looking next to expand -- areas like colleges, airports, hospitals or even office break rooms. The founders tell me they're also looking into machines that offer different options, like breakfast sandwiches or veggie burgers, and adding custom sauces to expand beyond ketchup and mustard.
This is a booming time for robotics in food service — restaurant chains including Buffalo Wild Wings and Chipotle are incorporating robot arms to handle automation of the fryer for multiple items. The demand for robots making food is being adopted more rapidly, thanks in part to the pandemic. Society is more accepting of a contactless meal, and staffing shortages are speeding along the need to have robots pitch in.,
Hopefully they can also make a robot to give me a side of fries and a Coke.