Chipotle Founder’s New Robot-Run Restaurant Wants to Revolutionize Lunch. Is the Food Good Enough?

Bon Appétit

In a sparse kitchen, a robot arm swings around and grabs a platter of pre-fried soy “chicken” off a rack where it’s resting. In one clean motion, it drops the imitation meat onto a conveyor belt, which takes it through an impingement oven and re-crisps the cutlet. A few feet away, a brioche bun gets toasted for a precise 30 seconds. Protein and bun are released onto a conveyor belt and arrive together in front of a (human) employee, who begins assembling the complete fried “chicken” sandwich.

And with that, your meal is ready. You’ve just met the kitchen team at Kernel, Chipotle founder Steve Ells’s latest attempt to change fast food.

The plant-based restaurant opened its first location a few blocks from Manhattan’s Madison Square Park on February 12, with plans to expand throughout New York City using a $36 million investment from private investment firms and tech companies. The takeout-only spot is betting big on the idea that diners aren’t that interested in human connection during their lunch break—and that they want to eat less meat. The menu hovers between traditional fast food (burgers, fried potatoes) and the vegetable-focused bowl lunches of competitors like Sweetgreen or Dig (salads, composed vegetable dishes).

Much of the hoopla surrounding Kernel has been focused on its investment in robotics. When I visited the restaurant just before opening day, only three humans were working alongside the machines—Ells told me that as technology advances, the kitchen team could become entirely robotic, with employees helping customers and troubleshooting as needed. For now, humans prepare the food at a location off-site; and at Kernel, robots and conveyor belts bring prepared ingredients to workers who assemble them. Those workers place the items in individual cubbies, similar to an automat. When your food is ready, your phone buzzes with a text that reveals which locker is holding your bagged food.

Picking up food from a cubby is nothing new, nor is cooking with robots, but past attempts at automating restaurants and removing human interaction have had mixed success. So are robots the future of fast-casual? Does Ells have another Chipotle-like hit on his hands? The real test, as with any restaurant, is whether the food is any good. The verdict on my recent visit: Kernel is legitimately tasty—enough for me to flirt with the idea of going back twice in one week.

The highlight is Kernel’s veggie burger, a blend of sweet potato, quinoa, chickpeas, kale, mushrooms, and oats, among other grains, legumes, and vegetables. Each bite is seasoned with garlic, chili, onion, and an umami-blast of marmite. This is not an Impossible-style burger trying to mimic beef—it’s a proud veggie burger, with the slight and satisfying mush of a standout version. It’s not crumbly like many other veggie burgers. An avocado-based salsa verde adds a zippy kick, while pink pickled onions provide some crunch. That’s all sandwiched into a pillowy-soft brioche bun. It’s not just good for a veggie burger, it’s a good burger, period.


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Author:Sam Stone | Website:www.bonappetit.com

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