Steve Ells' plant-based, robot-run fast food startup Kernel scores NFL stars as investors, sets launch date

MONEY & BUSINESS: Steve Ells’ plant-based, robot-run fast food startup Kernel scores NFL stars as investors, sets launch date

Chipotle founder Steve Ells’ plant-based, robot-powered fast-food startup Kernel is set to open its first location next month -– and has scored New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones as an investor, The Post has learned.

Jones and Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields – who adheres to a strict vegan diet – have each received equity stakes in the startup in exchange for their investment, a source close to the situation said.

Further terms of the investments could not immediately be learned.

When reached for comment, Ells said he was “thrilled to have an amazing group of investors who have been supportive of the great work that the team has done to bring Kernel to life.”

“I’m proud to have them on board to achieve our shared vision for delicious food served in a novel, planet-friendly way,” Ells added.

The pair are among several athletes that have invested in Ells’ futuristic concept, the source added.

Kernel’s kitchen needs just three workers. Kernel

Kernel features a meatless menu and utilizes an automated kitchen — staffed by as few as three workers and an array of computer screens, slots and chutes that form an assembly line – to prepare food and provide contactless service to customers.

Kernel is slated to launch its first storefront at 315 Park Ave South on Feb. 12, a company spokesperson said.

The storefront will be open from Monday through Friday and initially cater to the lunch crowd, with operating hours from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm.

Kernel’s kitchen features a robotic arm. Kernel

When customers order their food, the automated kitchen handles much of the work. Pre-prepared ingredients are placed into customized metal saucers and stacked in an easily accessible vertical rack, where they wait to be grabbed by the robotic arm when an order is received.

The robotic arm was manufactured by Germany-based robotics firm Kuka

Hot items such as veggie burgers and “chicken” are funneled by conveyor belt into an oven for cooking. Ingredients for salads, another menu staple, are automatically doled out and mixed by other contraptions.

Kernel founder Steve Ells is pictured. Melanie Dunea

The few staffers on site will help funnel orders through the assembly line and handle any finishing touches, such as sandwich assembly.

Notably, Kernel also applied a streamlined, tech-based approach to customer service.

The storefront does not have any seating or even cash registers; instead, customers will place their orders in advance on a Kernel app and pick up their food from a specific, code-locked cabinets inside the location.

Kernel will open its first location in February. Kernel

The store itself, seen for the first time in pictures obtained by The Post, appears to feature little in the way of decor at present. The robot-heavy kitchen is full of stainless steel appliances and will be visible to customers, while the walls are decked out in the brand’s trademark light-green paint.

Eventually, the startup plans to expand into dinner service.

The company also plotting a rapid expansion, with plans to open a number of locations across New York City over the next two years. Grub Street previously reported the number of planned stores to be 15.

Kernel’s veggie burger. Evan Sung

A copy of Kernel’s initial menu obtained by The Post revealed affordable pricing – by Manhattan standards.

The staple Kernel burger, which features a roasted veggie patty with salsa verde and pickled onions on a brioche bun, costs just $7. More expensive items include a faux-chicken sandwich at $9 a pop and chicken Caesar salad, which is the priceiest at $14 per order.

At $14, Kernel’s salads are the most expensive item on the menu. Evan Sung
Kernel’s crispy “chicken” sandwich. Evan Sung

Small sides such as crispy potatoes and roasted carrots carrying a price tag of $5 or less. Dessert options, such as a chocolate chunk cookie and oatmeal raisin walnut cookie, cost $3 each.

As it expands, Kernel will rely on a “hub-and-spoke” model favored by many other food chains. Most of the food will be prepared at a central commissary kitchen and then delivered to various storefronts.

Kernel’s workers handle final assembly of menu items. Kernel

Last May, The Post was first to report that Ells – who made a fortune while turning Chipotle from a single burrito shop into a national powerhouse – was plotting a comeback to the industry.

Kernel is aiming to get ahead of rivals such as Sweetgreen and Cava by relying on technology and small store footprints to save on labor and rent costs.

In August, Kernel closed a $36 million Series A fundraising round with participation from the likes of Raga Partners, Willoughby Capital, Rethink Food and Virtru.

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones is one of Kernel’s investors. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Ells’ executive team includes former Eleven Madison Park chief Andrew Black, who serves as the chain’s chief culinary officer, and ex-Chipotle global marketing chief Eric Wilson, who joined up as chief operating officer.

As The Post previously reported, Ells also tapped Stephen Goldstein, a former executive at billionaire Marc Lore’s high-end food delivery firm Wonder, to serve as Kernel’s president last September.

Ells ran Chipotle as CEO until 2017, when he stepped down after a series of widely covered foodborne illness outbreaks at the chain. He exited as chairman of the board in 2020.

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