Restaurant workers at takeout windows, like cashiers in supermarkets, face a greater risk of catching the new coronavirus because of the sheer number of people they see each day. But at Creator, a restaurant in San Francisco, a new pressurized “transfer chamber” means that germs can’t come in when an order goes out. The restaurant is now sharing the open-source design for other retailers to copy.
“Retail workers are on the front lines, exposed to hundreds of strangers every day in enclosed spaces,” says Creator founder Alex Vardakostas. “If retail workers fall ill, they are in turn at risk of infecting delivery workers and customers. We can’t restart the economy until retail and restaurant workers are protected. They’re some of the most important people to keep virus-free.”
The restaurant’s team has unusual engineering skills—when Creator opened in 2018, it became the first in the world to make fully prepared burgers with a robot that handles everything from slicing the bun and cooking the patty to chopping up onions and tomatoes. For customers in the current pandemic, there’s some added comfort in the fact that the process minimizes human contact; the machine even packages each burger itself. But the storefront still needs staff to get the food to customers waiting to pick it up, and last week, engineers and fabricators set to work on the new airlock-like window.
A fan pressurizes the chamber so air flows from high pressure to low pressure. “We ensure that airborne particles from the outside world go back into the outside world rather than into the store and onto staff,” Vardakostas says. “The second aspect of the chamber is a self-sanitizing conveyor belt. With every turn of the belt, it goes through a bath of sanitizer. This is to ensure that the surface that the customer’s goods touch are clean and sanitized regardless of what came before.” Delivery orders are also wrapped in a sealed plastic bag.
The design for the system is free for anyone to download on Github. “We designed it to be built with simple hand tools, and almost all components are off the shelf,” Vardakostas says. The system uses a hand crank to move the conveyor belt to keep it simple, though it could be tweaked to move with a gear. Ideally, he says, someone would have access to a 3D printer to build some of the components. The restaurant hopes to be able to offer some assistance to others who need it. “Protecting retail staff is literally a life-or-death circumstance, so we’re happy to help and coordinate,” he says.