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Chipotle founder opens meatless restaurants powered by robots

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Steve Ells, founder and former CEO of fast food giant Chipotle, is plotting a return to the industry early next year with a new startup that will serve meatless sandwiches in restaurants powered by robots and skeleton crews .

Ells, 58, is set to open a restaurant chain called Kernel, the first restaurant to open in Manhattan, and plans to open at least a dozen more throughout New York over the next two years, according to the Wall Street Journal .

Each store will be staffed by three people who team up with robots to prepare items such as meatless burgers, mock chicken sandwiches, salads, acai bowls and sides such as wild rice cucumbers. A typical meal would consist of a veggie burger with salsa verde and pickled onions on a toasted brioche bun with crispy potatoes on the side.

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Kernel is designed to operate with fewer resources and generate less waste, allowing restaurants to operate more efficiently.

The businessman invested $10 million of his own cash to revive Kernel and raised another $36 million from investors. Ells has tapped Stephen Goldstein, a longtime food delivery industry executive, to serve as company president, according to reports.

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Ells explained to the Wall Street Journal how the process at his new restaurants will work, with robots doing the heavy lifting.

A customer order is sent to the kitchen where a robotic arm puts pans loaded with food into the oven. A programmed toaster puts a bun in the oven to warm it up, while conveyor belts move the dishes around the kitchen, according to the publication.

Workers will then put the finishing touches on the dishes before wrapping the food and placing it in a locker for the customer to collect.

“We took a lot of the human interaction out of the process and left just enough,” Ells said.

Fast food companies are already considering introducing robots as a way to cut costs in an industry facing higher food prices and minimum wage increases in various states. Some companies also say they have difficulty attracting staff.

For example, White Castle, a fast food chain, announced that it has partnered with Miso Robotics to test “Flippy 2”, an advanced food processor, at various locations to improve food preparation and delivery. food. Chipotle has also tested this technology.

Meanwhile, in California, the minimum wage for fast food workers will increase to $20 an hour starting April 1, from $15.50 an hour. An estimated 500,000 people work in the fast food industry in California. States like Nebraska, Delaware, Maryland and Hawaii are also expected to increase their minimum wage levels next year.

However, Ells said Kernel would invest its efficiency savings into higher wages and better benefits for its staff compared to other fast food chains.

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Ells said the concept would also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He said his meatless robotics concept was inspired by a book by Bill Gates called “How to Avoid a Climate Catastrophe,” which advocates new technological strategies to combat so-called human-induced climate change.

He said the upcoming Kernel menu relies on legumes and vegetables rather than new plant-based meat alternatives.

“It’s not about beef. It’s not about pork,” Ells said of his veggie burger.

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Ells’ move could be crucial given that sales of plant-based meat alternatives have declined, with retail volumes of meat alternatives falling 23% in the financial year ending October 8.

However, a recent study by Technavio, a market research company, predicts that the plant-based hamburger patty market is expected to grow by $2.13 billion by 2026, at a compound annual growth rate of 41.1%.

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