The New York Post reported on Wednesday that Steve Ells, the founder and former CEO of Chipotle, is making plans for a comeback in the fast-food industry. According to sources, Ells is developing a plant-based, robot-powered chain that could operate with as few as three employees per restaurant. Investor materials obtained by The Post reveal that the startup aims to revolutionize labor, technology, real estate, and menu offerings through automation integrated with a human touch.
The startup, known as Kernel, envisions compact kitchens equipped with robotic arms, computer screens, and an assembly line for food preparation. The company claims to have successfully tested a three-person labor model and intends to launch its first store in late 2023. The initial location is expected to be in lower Manhattan, and discussions are underway regarding potential sites.
Kernel’s unique concept has already attracted significant investor interest, and Ells is currently self-funding the startup. It is anticipated that the initial funding round could raise between $30 million and $50 million. Kernel aims to differentiate itself by operating smaller stores, approximately 800 square feet each, which is roughly one-third the size of competitors like Sweetgreen and Shake Shack.
The company plans to adopt a model similar to other establishments such as Dig and Little Beet, where most of the food is prepared at offsite locations and delivered to the stores for final assembly and sale. Kernel’s automation-heavy approach has been likened to a high-tech factory for takeout foods, ensuring portion control, consistency, and efficient order fulfillment. Additionally, customers will have the opportunity to witness the automated kitchen in action as they await their food.
Kernel intends to offer a diverse menu influenced by various cuisines, including Greek, Chinese, Indian, Mediterranean, and Thai. The materials suggest that Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, Dig, Cava, and Chipotle (Ells’ former company) are among its competitors. The startup is also exploring the possibility of licensing its operating system to other businesses.
While details about Kernel’s team remain undisclosed, the company claims to have a roster of experienced individuals from prestigious companies such as Goldman Sachs, Apple, Eleven Madison Park, GoPuff, Mirror, and Amazon.
Industry experts believe that Kernel’s tech-centric approach could be successful if it manages to deliver tasty food quickly, with minimal staff, and offers a novel experience to customers. Despite the challenges Chipotle faced in the past, Ells is known for his ability to build a successful fast-food chain, and Kernel’s innovative concept has the potential to make an impact in the market.