The founder of Chipotle is opening a new endeavor called Kernel, a vegetarian fast-casual restaurant that will be operated mostly by robots. Steve Ells (who helped create the show America’s Next Great Restaurant on NBC) is opening at least 15 locations of Kernel, the first by early 2024; the remainder are on track for NYC in the next two years, a spokesperson confirms.
Kernel will serve vegetarian sandwiches, salads, and sides, made in a space that’s around 1,000 square-feet or smaller. Each location would employ three workers, the Wall Street Journal reported, “rather than the dozen that many fast-casual eateries have working.” The menu pricing will be on par with Chipotle’s, and, Ells says, the company will pay more and offer better benefits for actual humans working than other chains.
As you’d expect from the former CEO of Chipotle — which had at least five foodborne illness outbreaks between 2015 and 2018, costing the company $25 million per the Justice Department — “the new system’s design helps better ensure food safety,” Ells told the Journal. It has taken $10 million in his personal funds to start Kernel, along with $36 million from investors.
The company suggests customers may not want much interaction with other people — and neither do CEOs. “We’ve taken a lot of human interaction out of the process and left just enough,” he told the Journal.
Yet in a 2022 study on the future of dining out conducted by commerce site, PYMNTS, of 2,500 people surveyed, 63 percent of diners believe restaurants are becoming increasingly understaffed, and 39 percent said that they are becoming less personal.
“While some customers thrill at the idea of a robot bringing their food to their table, or the efficiency of an ordering kiosk,” a restaurant employee wrote last year for Civil Eats, “what fosters loyal customers is the quality of the food and drink and the human relationships they build.”
Kernel is Ells’s reentry into restaurants since 2020, after stepping down as Chipotle’s leader, having founded it in 1993.
While the first restaurant is on track to open early next year, a spokesperson wouldn’t yet share an address, but confirmed it will be downtown. Others have reported a commissary at 14th and Sixth Avenue in what had been Dairy Queen, with a location to open at 315B Park Avenue South at East 24th Street.
Kernel’s enthusiasm for robots marks one of several companies exploring automated workers, which includes Sweetgreen unveiling its first fully automated kitchen in Illinois earlier this year. Other food and beverage establishments are implementing robotics locally, including Botbar Coffee in Greenpoint; “avatar of gentrification and automation,” Blank Street Coffee; and seemingly less insidious roving cat robot servers at area dim sum parlors.