I saw enough “Twilight Zone” episodes back in the ‘60s to be very wary of any robots, particularly those that always want to take over humankind. It’s to the point that you wonder if any other type of robot exists. Must they all be power-hungry?
Be warned, as Bakersfield has its first restaurant that has an on-staff robot. It’s CaliBurger up off the 99 and Olive Drive, the western outskirts of Oildale. This fast-growing franchise (40 locations in 14 countries, according to the nine-screen video wall that is playing promotional materials in a loop, the better to brainwash customers) claims to be an early investor in artificial intelligence and has a burger-flipping robot working in the kitchen that’s named Flippy. I am not making this up. The video on the wall shows him at work, wearing chef’s whites on his arm, claims he’s capable of learning and someday may be making the fries and cutting the onions. Right now it seems like he’s limited to turning burger patties over (a real human is shown in the video putting them on the grill) and when they’re done, scooping them up, pivoting and putting them on a bun.
The video is a piece of work. It shows him working with a cheerful young woman who flashes him a somewhat flirtatious smile in the process. Human and machine can work together, no matter what Rod Serling said. I left wishing they were offering tours so we could see him in action, see if he cracks jokes, has a personality. I’m sure that’s coming.
The rest of the time the video wall shows us scenes of people partying near the beach in Venice and Santa Monica and then a rock group about as genuine as The Monkees throwing paint on the wall and trying to look hip while miming the playing of instruments. Occasionally there’s a shot of a burger or fries in this company that is doing its best imitation to take the In-N-Out formula and export it around the world before the robots take over completely and there will be no need for food. One thing that struck me is how few people were working here. Go to the In-N-Out on Stockdale Highway, which always seems to have lines inside and in the drive-through, and you have dozens of employees all earning every dollar of their pay with constant work and motion, all done pleasantly. At CaliBurger it’d be hard to field a starting basketball team with the skeleton crew.
So, how’s the food? Robots have a future in this business I guess. The french fries are similar to In-N-Out but better: sweeter, starchier, still fresh cut, darker brown, too. Not evident what oil they use, but they are different. The burger patties are slightly juicier and thicker, but the buns are flatter and not as tempting as In-N-Out. The onions are offered raw or caramelized, and get the latter, as they are almost black with beefy taste. The robots or their human minions do a good job on that. We sampled the Cali Double ($4.49) made with lettuce, tomato, American cheese and the typical “special” sauce.
The speed of the ordering process was reasonable but not excessively fast or slow: 6:57 p.m. ordered, 7:10 p.m. food brought to the table.
In other differences, they do serve three beers on tap — 805, Temblor Blood Orange (a local product) and Michelob Ultra — but no wine. They also offer a killer chicken sandwich that my companion ordered, the chipotle barbceue with bacon ($6.49). It was a simple skinless breast grilled until brown (not certain if Flippy handled that) and it was definitely an “order it again” item. There’s not much else on the menu: another chicken sandwich, bottled water, sodas from one of those Coke Freestyle machines and three flavors of milkshake.
KUZZ was playing overhead, and it was hard not to look away from the big screen especially when it showed a world map with all the CaliBurger locations. They’ve got some in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Mexico, Sweden, Hong Kong, the East Coast, and Washington state. It’s just interesting how fast-growing restaurant chains like this place or Cafe Rio use the captive audience concept to use video screens to tell their story, sell ads, create a Big Brother sort of ambiance. Want ESPN? Stay at home.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.