Chipotle’s Steve Ells Eyes Tiny Restaurant With Robots, Three Humans

  • Chipotle founder and ex-CEO Steve Ells is leading a new restaurant startup called Kernel.
  • Kernel’s model “fundamentally rethinks labor” by adding robots to its kitchen and minimizing staff.
  • Robots and automation are becoming a bigger part of restaurants from Wendy’s to Chili’s.

The founder and former CEO of Chipotle is reportedly seeking funding for a new idea: tiny restaurants that uses robots and staff no more than three people.

Steve Ells has been pitching the concept to potential investors, the New York Post reported on Wednesday. According to documents obtained by the Post, the startup, called Kernel, uses a model featuring three human workers directing robots along an assembly line.

Ells’ investor pitch, which he has been making since at least last year, says Kernel “fundamentally rethinks labor, technology, real estate, and menu,” the Post reported. The company plans to open a restaurant in Manhattan later this year in a space of about 800 square feet, according to the Post. Its menu could include a variety of items, from hamburgers to acai bowls.

Kernel did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment. Spokesperson Sarah Rosenberg confirmed to the Post that Ells is at the startup’s helm and elements of its plan.

Ells founded the first Chipotle in Denver in 1993. Ells grew Chipotle and helped popularize fast casual dining before stepping down as CEO in 2017 after various foodborne illness outbreaks at its restaurants. Today, Chipotle has over 3,o00 locations. 

Ells is far from the first to propose using robots and other technologies in restaurants to automate various procedures and rely on fewer workers. Chili’s uses a robot named Rita to serve customers at a handful of its stores. Various chains like White Castle have tested using Flippy, a robotic burger-flipping robot from Miso Robotics. And Chipotle has tested Chippy, a tortilla chip-making robot from the same creators as Flippy.

Some chains are also using AI to streamline customer service. Companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s have experimented with chatbots at the drive-thru windows of select stores. 

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