Inside Kernel, the vegan fast food chain from former Chipotle CEO

MONEY & BUSINESS: Inside Kernel, the vegan fast food chain from former Chipotle CEO

Nice work, if you can get it.

Employees at one of Manhattan’s hottest new takeout spots have it pretty good — they’re pulling down $25 an hour to start, plus they get sick leave, paid vacations and soon, stock options.

But if you stop by Kernel, a vegan restaurant now open on Park Ave. So. and 24th St., you’ll notice the unusually small number of staffers at the counter going out of their way to leave a lot of the work to one, seemingly tireless co-worker.

A Kernel, a vegan fast food takeout joint in Manhattan, much of the work is done by the store’s robot, nicknamed “El Capitan.” Evan Sung

That’s “El Capitan,” and he totally doesn’t mind picking up the slack— he’s a robot, after all.

Meet the future of fast food, or so former Chipotle CEO Steve Ells hopes — the former burrito bigwig has plunged $36 million in the meatless venture, $10 million of it from his own pocket, betting that what customers and employees want is less interaction and better prices.

The robot, a six-axis arm dreamed up by Kuka, a German firm, can reach more than three feet and lift 11 pounds with a flick of the wrist. The mechanical macher is at the heart of the food prep process — order a $7 veggie burger made from roasted sweet potato, quinoa and chickpeas, a salad bowl or a side of roasted carrots — the bot can do it all.

In fact, the humans on duty seem to mostly be present to do their automated overlord’s bidding. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, they say.

“This is the first restaurant job I’ve had that doesn’t leave me broken or beaten at the end of the day,” Kernel staffer Carlos De La Concha told Fortune.

Company execs are taking notice.

The German-made robotic arm does much of the labor, with just three employees backing him up. Kernel
A look at the prep area behind the counter at Kernel on Park Avenue S. in NYC. Kernel
A crispy chicken sandwich at Kernel, where food prices are able to run slightly lower thanks to less human error in areas like food waste, Fortune reported. Evan Sung

“Team members are enjoying the experience and automation is creating a better working environment for them and not a worse one,” Stephen Goldstein, Kernel’s president, told Fortune. Kuka has increased efficiency and the employees’ sense of agency, he said.

For now, the restaurant is enjoying zero turnover among its staff — a rarity in the business, and certainly in a city like New York with an absurd cost of living.

Kernel has been open for a little more than a month, with customers loving the food and the relatively affordable prices — less human-error related instances of food waste, Fortune said, have kept costs lower.

Steve Ells, former CEO of Chipotle, started Kernel with $36 million — $10 million of that out of his own pocket. Melanie Dunea

And while the company didn’t show any sales numbers, they did confirm that they are planning to open roughly 10 restaurants relatively quickly.

The futuristic fast foodery is at the forefront of a brand new trend towards total restaurant automation — it joins fellow salad slinger Sweetgreen, which has opened two fully-automated stores; in a recent earnings call, the trendy chain noted that those locations were doing better business than human-run branches nearby.

Coffee shops have also been flirting with the concept of doing away with human labor — a Post reporter stopped by the Muji department store at Manhattan’s Hudson Yards this week, where a robot named Jarvis was skillfully crafting cappuccinos at the on-site coffee bar, with a human co-worker stopping by periodically to restock supplies.

And while Jarvis might be more machine than man, he still asked for a tip.

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