This month marks the cheeseburger’s 100th anniversary.
Courtesy of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, you’ll want to snap up your Cheeseburger Week Passport right now, before Saturday, January 27. Visit a minimum of four (4) of the burgeries participating in the celebration, earn a stamp at each restaurant to qualify, save your receipts as proof of purchase, and redeem for prizes by calling the Chamber at 626-795-3355. Participating establishments include Kathleen’s on North Lake (the house-made Coconut Cake is a revelation), Granville, Great Maple, and Pie ‘n Burger (see the Cheeseburger Week Passport link for a complete list).
Strategically timed to the centennial, CaliExpress by Flippy™ purports to be the newest player in Pasadena’s historic cheeseburger gambit, claiming to press the flesh in the world’s first fully “autonomous” kitchen using Artificial Intelligence (AI). But in pursuit of this modern marvel, we must return to a 1980s-vintage query: Where’s the beef?
If CaliExpress is open for business, none of us have been able to decipher the entry code.
We’ve ventured to the much-ballyhooed downtown Pasadena location a few times since the newest offering from Miso Robotics and Cali Group announced its opening. We shared the puzzlement of other hopefuls as we pressed our collective puppy noses to the windows the other day at the corner of Madison and Green, hoping to catch a whiff of high-tech hamburgeoning within. Construction guys were hard at work inside, but not a sign of anyone gettin’ flippy wit’ it.
Online reviews suggest that journalists may have been invited to a press preview in late 2023; apparently, our invitation was lost in the mail. The Web is also filled with unkind comments about the organization, and those seem sure to be multiplying as we go to press.
Their Web site promises good things, notably Wagyu-blend burgers “at prices competitive with premium burgers using standard meat.” We like the idea of unfrozen, superior-grade meat being ground after we place our order, dished up with crispy, hot fries cooked from scratch using raw, top-grade spuds, cooked to order. But the brand challenge to “Eat the future” is proving tricky since none of the site’s links work, and no phone number is listed.
The Cheeseburger – Jazz Age American Excess
Pasadena’s own Lionel Clark Sternberger created the cheeseburger at The Rite Spot, his dad’s restaurant located on then-Route 66 at the southwest corner of Colorado Boulevard and Avenue 64, just west of the Colorado Bridge before the thoroughfare was called Colorado Boulevard. Local lore has it that Lionel was 16 years old in 1924, working as a short-order cook there when he first slapped a slice of American or cheddar into the sandwich to mask a scorched bun or to meet a forward-thinking customer request.
Accounts vary, but no matter. Lionel’s cheeseburger represented the perfect expression of Jazz Age American excess, piling fatty bovine protein atop bovine protein in an artery-popping pairing that musta made the dairy and beef lobbies bust their britches. In those days, the family-owned eatery served up the sizzly sandwich – promptly titled the Aristocratic Burger– for 15 cents, still only about $2.65 in today’s money.
Since then, Jimmy Buffett, RIP, sang of the “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and now monstrously huge burgers are decadently draped and drenched with everything from bacon-lettuce-tomato, chili, a slice of SPAM, pickled jalapeños, caramelized kimchi or pineapple slices to PB&J, fois gras, truffles, even hot fudge on a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or maple syrup when the burger patty is served atop a buttered waffle. Nothing exceeds like excess, but CaliExpress proposes an admirably simpler concept: hamburger, cheeseburger, fries, and a bottled drink.
The brand claims that AI Flippy turns the burgers and handles the fry baskets, thus making the process “autonomous.” Those of us old enough to remember television robots like The Jetsons’ metal maid Rosie may recognize Flippy as little more than a sock-puppet with a grasping beak, even reminiscent of those used in zoos to feed skittish condor chicks. CaliExpress even demonstrates a faulty comprehension of the term AI since humans are on hand to add cheese slices and salt the fries in the years-old videos posted by Cali Group of Flippy in action.
But we’re willing to go along with the trend, so we asked a bot to write a review of CaliExpress using the prompt: “Write a brief review of a new robotic AI burger restaurant named CaliExpress, reflecting the experience of automated food preparation.”
Stepping into CaliExpress, the futuristic ambiance promised a revolutionary dining experience. The automated ordering set the stage for what was marketed as the epitome of convenience in the culinary world. However, the sad and disturbing reality unfolded as the robotic AI-driven burger restaurant revealed itself.
The soulless hum of machinery destroys any semblance of a lively atmosphere, creating an eerie detachment between patrons and the food preparation process. The once joyous anticipation of a delicious meal was replaced by a cold, sterile ambiance that left diners feeling more like observers in a dystopian experiment.
The robotic arms tirelessly worked to craft each order of burger and fries with unwavering precision. But while efficiency was commendable, the absence of human touch in the cooking process cast a gloomy shadow over the entire experience. The mechanical precision lacked the artistry and warmth that a skilled chef imparts to their creations.
As the burgers were delivered, the absence of the personal touch became even more apparent. Patrons settle for a one-size-fits-all meal devoid of the personalization and care that one would expect from a dining establishment.
The saddest aspect of the experience was the absence of human interaction. The once vibrant exchange between chefs and patrons, the pride in recommending a favorite dish, or the warmth of a smile – all replaced by a sterile, automated transaction. CaliExpress sacrificed the soul of dining for the sake of efficiency.
The disturbing reality was that CaliExpress felt more like a fast-food factory than a restaurant. The disconnect between the precision of automation and the emotional resonance of a culinary experience left diners questioning the cost of progress in the food industry. In the pursuit of efficiency and trendy AI gimmickry, CaliExpress sacrificed the very essence of what makes dining a cherished and human experience.
What would you like on your imaginary burger?
For now, we have no choice but to celebrate the centennial elsewhere since the Wagyu wonder of CaliExpress is no more than a “wish sandwich,” where you take two slices of bread, close your eyes, and wish for the meal to materialize.