Chipotle founder and ex-CEO Steve Ells is plotting a return to the fast-food scene — with a plant-based, robot-powered chain whose restaurants could operate with as few as three employees, The Post has learned.
Ells, 56, has been pitching investors since not less than last yr on a startup that “fundamentally rethinks labor, technology, real estate and menu” and uses “automation with a human touch,” in accordance with draft investor materials obtained by The Post.
“We proved a 3-person labor model can work,” the corporate said within the materials, which The Post didn’t publish in an effort to protect the anonymity of a source.
The pitch deck includes mock-ups and photos of Kernel’s compact kitchens — with three worker workstations surrounded by computer screens, robotic arms and an array of slots and chutes for moving food through an assembly line.
When reached by The Post, Kernel representative Sarah Rosenberg confirmed that Ells is leading the brand new startup and described it as a “tech-enabled fast-food concept that leverages software and robotics,” but declined further comment about its technology.
“Yes, a fundamentally lighter labor model is core to the operation,” Rosenberg said.
“Kernel’s operational model requires materially fewer employees to the established order business model.”
The startup shall be based in Latest York and its executives and initial production hub are positioned on 14th Street in Manhattan, Rosenberg said.
Kernel’s first store launch is predicted to happen in late 2023, and it’s in talks about various potential locations in lower Manhattan for the initial store, a source told The Post.
Ells is self-funding the startup ahead of a planned fundraising round, and investor interest in Kernel is already said to be significant.
The initial round could approach $30 million to $50 million, one source with knowledge of the situation told The Post.
Rosenberg declined to comment on the round’s status or potential size.
Along with work shifts requiring just three employees, Kernel asserts that its automated kitchens will limit the scale of its stores to roughly 800 square feet each, or roughly a 3rd the scale of locations operated by Sweetgreen and Shake Shack.
“Kernel intends to open doors with a cloth smaller footprint than fast food and fast casual incumbents,” Rosenberg said.
Kernel appears prone to operate in a way just like rivals reminiscent of Dig and Little Beet, where nearly all of food is ready at an offsite location after which delivered to stores for final assembly and sale to customers, in accordance with Arlene Spiegel, a Latest York-based restaurant, retail and food-service consultant and president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates.
Spiegel likened Kernel’s proposed automation-heavy model to “a makeshift factory, almost just like the Willy Wonka of takeout foods.”
“On the storefront, it’s completely portion-controlled, automated and logistically connected to all the ordering platforms for a consistent fast pick-up and delivery,” Spiegel told The Post.
Store locations will include a novelty aspect for purchasers, who will give you the chance to see the automated kitchen at work preparing their food, Rosenberg confirmed.
Kernel’s proposed offerings would consist a wide selection of cuisines, starting from acai bowls, wraps and salads to pizza, pasta and hamburgers.
It also cites a variety of different food influences, including Greek, Chinese, Indian, Mediterranean and Thai, that can encourage the menu selections.
The startup sees Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, Dig, Cava and Ells’ former company Chipotle as its competitors, in accordance with the materials.
Other potential rivals include plant-based meat brands, automated kitchen corporations and so-called “ghost kitchens.”
Other than operating storefronts, Kernel is exploring plans to license its operating system to other businesses.
The startup’s roster, in accordance with the old investor materials, included Chef Andrew Black, a veteran of ritzy Eleven Madison Park, as head of its culinary and restaurant ops.
Eric Wilson, a veteran of Apple and Chipotle, is listed as head of operations and digital product.
Kernel declined to comment on the scale of its founding team and who else, besides Ells, is currently involved in its operations.
“Kernel’s team has veterans from corporations reminiscent of Goldman Sachs, Apple, Eleven Madison Park, GoPuff, Mirror, Amazon and more,” Rosenberg said.
The investor materials included testimonials from individuals who were invited to sample Kernel’s food offerings.
“I really like comfort food and this gave me all the things I really like about comfort food without the guilt of being unhealthy,” one customer said.
Kernel’s tech-heavy approach to food service could gain a following if the startup is capable of innovate and present a novel experience to customers, in accordance with Mike Plutino, a hospitality industry consultant and CEO of Food Service Matters.
“In the correct market, we predict it is barely a matter of time for a visionary restaurateur to push the boundaries and would achieve success in the event that they can deliver a good-tasting product, produced with speed, with minimal staff and with a little bit of novelty in guests watching an automatic process,” Plutino said.
Ells founded Chipotle with a single Denver store in 1993 and built the chain right into a powerhouse over the following twenty years, with greater than 2,600 restaurants under his watch.
The corporate cultivated a large following through popular menu items reminiscent of burrito bowls and an emphasis on fresh, sustainable ingredients.
But the corporate began to struggle within the late 2010s following a series of foodborne illness outbreaks at its restaurants.
Ells stepped down as Chipotle’s CEO in 2017 and gave up his role as chairman of the board in 2020.
Chipotle has since rebounded under current CEO Brian Niccol.
The corporate’s stock has risen 365% over the past five years.