Chipotle Founder Reportedly Creating Robotic Restaurant as Eateries Tap Automation

restaurant robot

With restaurants testing out different automated technologies, trying to get a sense of how much labor they can outsource to machines without compromising on quality or alienating consumers, Chipotle founder and former CEO Steve Ells is reportedly looking to throw his hat in the ring.

On Wednesday (May 24), the New York Post reported that Ells is looking to get back into the restaurant industry with Kernel, a plant-based chain that would leverage robotics to operate locations with only three human employees while significantly reducing locations’ real estate footprints. Ells has reportedly been shopping the idea around to investors for the past year or more.

Kernel spokesperson Sarah Rosenberg told the outlet that the startup is a “tech-enabled fast-food concept that leverages software and robotics,” leveraging a “fundamentally lighter labor model” and kitchens that are only 800 square feet. She said the company will be based in New York City.

The news comes shortly after health-focused fast-casual chain Sweetgreen announced earlier this month that it is pilot testing its first automation-powered location. The news came nearly two years after the restaurant first shared that it had acquired Spyce, a Boston restaurant that prepared salads and bowls in its robotic “Infinite Kitchen,” which assembled orders within minutes.

“We believe that automation will enable us to elevate the quality and integrity of our food while also providing a faster and more convenient experience for our customers and a better, more dynamic job for our team members,” Sweetgreen Co-founder and CEO Jonathan Neman said in a statement. “With the integration of the sweetgreen Infinite Kitchen in our restaurants, we can unlock efficiencies that will enable us to grow more quickly as we scale.”

According to data cited in “Inflation Makes Technology Table Stakes for Restaurants,” the March edition of the “Money Mobility Tracker®,” a PYMNTS and Ingo Money collaboration, three-quarters of restaurant operators plan to adopt technology this year to address their labor and cost challenges. Plus, 90% of restaurant owners report that they see increased back-of-house automation as a key way to free up time to focus on more important tasks.

Plus, research featured in the latest edition of PYMNTS’ Hospitality Tracker®, created in collaboration with LS Retail, “Can Automation Solve Labor Shortages in the Hospitality Sector?,” reveals that 96% of restaurants automate at least some of their back-of-house operations.

Yet it is unclear whether consumers are willing to trade human service for robots outside of cases where automation is the gimmick. For instance, last summer, casual dining giant Brinker International said it was pausing its test of Bear Robotics’ robotic server technology, with Chili’s dubbing its robo-hosts and robo-runners “Rita.”

“We recently paused the expansion of our Rita the Robot test,” a Brinker International spokesperson wrote in an email to PYMNTS at the time. “While some of our 61 Rita-fied restaurants will continue using … in the coming months, we’re holding off on introducing any new Ritas to our other Chili’s locations.”

Indeed, some in the restaurant technology space are predicting that the greatest advancements in the industry will come not in the form of revolutionary new systems such as automated stores but rather from the further refinement of existing capabilities such as predictive data analytics.

In a recent interview with PYMNTS’ Karen Webster, Tony Smith, co-founder and CEO at restaurant management software company Restaurant365, noted that, at the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, he was especially impressed by these sorts of innovations rather than shiny new technologies.

“It was more evolutionary advancements than revolutionary advancements this year,” Smith said.