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Chipotle founder Steve Ells is developing a new automated restaurant to be called Kernel

Expected to debut in New York City late this year, the robotic concept can reportedly be operated with as few as three people in roughly 800-square feet.
Steve Ells. | Photograph courtesy of Restaurant Business

Chipotle Mexican Grill founder Steve Ells appears to be readying a comeback with a new concept called Kernel, which is reportedly seeking investors for a planned debut later this year.

The new concept is described by the New York Post as a fully automated restaurant that could operate with as few as three employees in a space that will be roughly 800-square feet, about one-third the size of a Sweetgreen or Chipotle.

The menu will be plant-based, with offerings that could include açai bowls, wraps, salads, pizza, pasta and burgers, the report said.

Sources representing the project did not respond to press requests.

The fast-casual segment appears to be the hot spot for automated restaurants. Sweetgreen debuted its first fully automated unit in Naperville, Ill., earlier this month, using the Spyce technology acquired by the chain in 2021. Chipotle this year will begin testing an automated makeline designed by the tech company Hyphen, which the Mexican chain has also invested in.

In mid-May, a number of trademarks were filed under the Kernel name by Kernel Foods Inc., including commercial kitchen equipment, software related to kitchen management, industrial robots and cubby containers.

Kernel appears to have proprietary systems for an automated concept that will be labor light./Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Kernel appears to have proprietary systems for an automated concept that will be labor light. | Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

According to the report, Ells has been pitching the idea to potential investors since last year. The startup will be based in Manhattan, and the first store launch is expected in late 2023. Ells is self-funding the project ahead of a planned funding round that could reach $30 million to $50 million, unnamed sources told the Post.

In addition to growing its own restaurants, the company might also license its operating system to other concepts.

Among those listed as involved in the project, according to the Post, are chef Andrew Black, who cooked at Eleven Madison Park; and Eric Wilson, a veteran of Apple and Chipotle, who was listed as head of operations and digital product.

Ells, a chef who once cooked at the famed restaurant Stars in San Francisco, founded Chipotle in 1993 and grew the chain into a fast-casual powerhouse before a widespread foodborne illness outbreak tied to Chipotle and other crises threatened to dethrone the concept. Ells stepped down from leadership in 2018. His successor Brian Niccol has since righted the ship, and Chipotle has surpassed 3,000 units, with plans to reach 7,000 across North America.

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