Steve Ells, the founder and ex-CEO of the fast casual food giant Chipotle, is plotting a return to the industry early next year with a new startup that will serve meat-free sandwiches in restaurants powered by robots and skeleton crews.
Ells, 58, is scheduled to open a chain of restaurants called Kernel, with the first location expected to open in Manhattan and plans for at least a dozen more throughout New York over the next two years, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Each store will be manned by three people who will team up with robots in making items such as meat-free burgers, faux chicken sandwiches, salads, acai bowls and sides such as cucumbers with wild rice. A typical meal would consist of a veggie burger with salsa verde and pickled onions on a toasted brioche bun with crispy potatoes as a side.
Steve Ells, former chairman and co-chief executive officer of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. Photograph: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kernel is designed to run on fewer resources and be less wasteful, therefore enabling eateries to operate more efficiently.
The businessman has put $10 million of his own cash to jump start Kernel and has raised a further $36 million from investors. Ells has tapped Stephen Goldstein, a longtime food delivery industry executive, to serve as president of the company, according to reports.
Ells explained to The Wall Street Journal how the process in his new restaurants will work with the robots doing much of the heavy lifting.
A customer order is sent to the kitchen where a robotic arm puts food-laden pans into the oven. A programmed toaster flips a bun into the oven for warming, while conveyor belts moves dishes through the kitchen, according to the publication.
Workers will then put the finishing touches on the dishes before packaging the food and placing it into a cubby for the customer to pick up.
"We’ve taken a lot of human interaction out of the process and left just enough," Ells said.
Fast food companies have already been toying with the idea of introducing robots as a way of cutting costs in an industry that is facing higher food prices coupled with minimum wage hikes in various states. Some companies also say they are finding it hard to attract staff.
A robot at the research making a pizza in Germany. Kernel is expected to use similarly designed robots in its kitchens. (Photo by Ingo Wagner/picture alliance via Getty Images)
For instance, White Castle, a fast-food chain, announced it has teamed up with Miso Robotics to test out "Flippy 2," an advanced kitchen robot, across various locations to help elevate food preparation and delivery. Chipotle has also been trialing the technology.
Meanwhile, in California, the minimum wage for fast food workers will jump to $20 an hour from April 1, up from $15.50 an hour. There are an estimated 500,000 people working in California’s fast-food industry. States such as Nebraska, Delaware, Maryland and Hawaii are also expected to jack up minimum wage levels next year.
However, Ells said that Kernel will invest its efficiency savings into higher salaries and better benefits for its staff compared to other fast food chains.
Ells said the concept will also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He said his robotic, meat-free concept was inspired by a book by Bill Gates called, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster," that advocates for new technological strategies to address purported human-induced climate change.
He said the upcoming menu Kernel menu leans on legumes and vegetables rather than newer plant-based meat alternatives.
"It’s not trying to be beef. It’s not trying to be pork," Ells said about his veggie burger.
Ells’ decision could be crucial given sales of plant-based meat alternatives have declined with retail sales volumes of meat alternatives declining by 23% in the year ended Oct. 8.
However, a recent study by Technavio, a market research firm, predicts that the market for plant-based burger patties is expected to increase by $2.13 billion by 2026, at a compound annual growth rate of 41.1%.