big ideas

Steve Ells Is Still Trying to Solve Lunch

He built Chipotle and its burrito bowls. Now he’s obsessed with vegan burgers cooked by robots.

Ells at his next restaurant, Kernel. Photo: Dina Litovsky
Ells at his next restaurant, Kernel. Photo: Dina Litovsky
Ells at his next restaurant, Kernel. Photo: Dina Litovsky

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At Hudson Eats, an upscale food court in lower Manhattan, the bankers and media workers descending from nearby office towers can find anything they dream of for lunch — so long as they dream in bowl form. There are build-your-own bento bowls at Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar, build-your-own bone-broth rice bowls at Springbone Kitchen, build-your-own burrito bowls at Dos Toros, build-your-own Middle Eastern bowls at Naya, and build-your-own “seasonal comfort food” bowls at Dig. This is the way untold millions of Americans eat lunch now: by shuffling through a base → protein → toppings assembly process, then shoveling the $18 result into their mouths.

At noon on a recent weekday, Steve Ells, who founded Chipotle Mexican Grill and is therefore among the people directly responsible for the dominance of this fast-casual format, joins the masses for lunch. Looking boyish at 58, in Veja high-tops, corduroys, and a fitted cashmere sweater, he strolls the food court with his hands clasped behind him, inspecting the make-line clones. Only some meet his standards. At Dig, he compliments how nicely the spiced farro and crispy cauliflower are presented, in sturdy cast iron. Then he narrows his eyes disdainfully at the sight of a haphazard pile of plastic takeout containers, greasy paper chits drooping from lids.

We join the line at Naya, where six employees are scooping chicken shawarma at a furious cadence for a line that spills far beyond the maze of stanchions designed to contain it. Lunchtime at Hudson Eats can be a seething mass of fleece vests and AirPods, as if the entire population of Harvard Business School had disgorged itself into this one corridor. Today it’s merely “Penn Station at rush hour” bad, and as we wait, I ask Ells what he makes of the crowd — so many workers obtaining lunch in exactly the same way. “Some people like to stand in line,” Ells says with a shrug, suggesting that we time ourselves to see if it isn’t faster than it looks. “I would bet that everybody in this line knew when they came down for lunch that there would be a line here, and they don’t mind it. It looks pretty social to me.”

It’s what I’ll call a minority opinion on the topic of queues, but Ells doubles down, recalling how in the early days of Chipotle, back when McDonald’s was an investor, executives were convinced his make-line format was flawed. “They were so concerned about the length of the line, and that one cash register, as opposed to McDonald’s, with multiple cash registers and shorter lines. I said, ‘I don’t think people really mind the line, necessarily, as long as they see it moving.’”

Tucking into his bowl 17 minutes later, Ells declares Naya tasty, although the flavor of the rice is a little flat. “I always think about seasoning all the disparate components,” he says, “so that if you eat any one thing by itself, it’s delicious.” The word is Ells’s highest compliment, and when he says it he punches each syllable, leaning forward with a conspiratorial grin. Overall, Ells feels good about Hudson Eats, especially all the cooking happening on-site, and he ventures an exceedingly modest assertion of credit. “These kinds of options weren’t always available, and I think that Chipotle had something to do with it,” he says. I’d go quite a bit further: Without his influence, it’s hard to imagine what a place like Hudson Eats would offer; what, exactly, the customary urban work lunch circa 2024 would look and taste like.

But Ells is not here to talk about the lunchscape he wrought. He’s here to share a vision of how we’ll eat lunch in the future. For the past two years, Ells has been attempting to create the restaurant of tomorrow in a test kitchen a few miles uptown, with an ever-growing team of chefs, industrial designers, coders, and hardware engineers. The menu will be plant-based and robot-powered; human interaction will be kept to a minimum; the food will not come in the form of an agglomerated bowl. It’s called Kernel, and this month it’s scheduled to open to the public on Park Avenue South, in between a Cava and a Just Salad.

Does lunch need reinventing? One could argue that the options available to urban office workers have never been better. The range of global cuisines on offer, the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the degree of customization: The modern fast-casual scene is a vast improvement on the cafeterias, delis, food carts, and slice joints that once dominated downtowns across America. A person within walking distance of just a few fast-casual chains, each allowing a combination of a handful of ingredients, could have a different lunch tens of thousands of days in a row.

Most office workers, of course, do not avail themselves of these variations. The choice is something of an illusion; somehow, the bowls always end up feeling like the same meal. Most of us proceed through the long lines, which are — sorry, Steve — objectively aggravating, emerge with a pile of calories, and consume them while clearing out our inboxes.

Ells believes that lunch is due for a reset on other grounds, too. One of his motivations is ecological. Reading Bill Gates’s 2021 book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster opened his eyes to the full environmental impact of animal agriculture and propelled him to do his part to reduce it. He reasoned that a new, plant-based fast-casual concept, were it to become as successful as Chipotle, could make meaningful change.

Then there’s the economics. The fast-casual format has been more or less frozen in time since he started Chipotle in 1993, and from a business perspective, the model has its shortcomings. All that on-site slicing, chopping, grilling, and scooping requires lots of labor and kitchen space, both of which have risen in cost over the years. And while Chipotle is profitable in part because its menu relies on naturally inexpensive ingredients like beans and rice, other brands — like Sweetgreen, with costlier fare like kale, quinoa, and steelhead trout — have found it harder to make the math work.

Kernel — a name that brings to mind plants and the germ of an idea, and which Ells came up with one day on a jog — is organized under a significantly leaner business model. The menu eschews the sprawling combinatorics of bowls for a simple, ten-item roster of meatless chicken sandwiches and burgers, salads, and vegetables. Skilled cooks at a central kitchen will prepare ingredients, which will be loaded into insulated totes and bicycled to perhaps a dozen small satellite restaurants within a close radius. Each of those locations will be staffed by just three employees and one robot, working together to cook and assemble orders.

On a Tuesday morning in November, Ells greets me at Kernel’s inaugural site. He’s dressed again in what I gather is his uniform: fitted cashmere sweater, comfy trousers, spotless sneakers. Ells’s teeth are paper-white and not one nanometer off plumb. His posture is perfectly erect. He wears black-framed eyeglasses, a particular style produced in the 1960s by the eyewear company American Optical. Ells says he sought them out because he prefers the feel of the vintage acetate, which is slightly more rigid than contemporary versions of the material.

The space now housing Kernel hadn’t been a restaurant, and Ells opted against a full redesign, deeming it too expensive. “Look at every fast-casual place, and there’s a veneer,” Ells says. “Some have wood paneling on the walls. Some have barn slats.” For this location, warmth and character weren’t priorities. He blasted the existing walls and ceiling seafoam green, and LED light fixtures overhead bathe the space in the cool glow of a surgical suite.

Most of the room is occupied by what Ells and his team call “the operating platform”: an L-shaped assembly line featuring an oven, a robotic arm, and space for two employees. Everything is optimized. Ells is keenly interested in lean manufacturing, a business philosophy often associated with Japanese automaking, where it was used to build better cars more profitably. Lean thinking revolves around reducing waste — not just literal garbage, but any sort of excess whatsoever. A “lean consultant” named Scott Heydon led the Kernel team in mapping out the production of the menu action by action, stripping the process of extraneous movement. Says Heydon, “Our target was to produce one consumable item every 15 seconds.”

Cooking begins with a robotic arm. Photo: Dina Litovsky

Ells darts around the operating platform, miming the activity that will take place there. He demonstrates how worker one will unpack little metal saucers filled with prepped ingredients and place them on custom-designed racks within reach of the robot arm. (Heydon says the team went through “at least 20 iterations of the saucer” in pursuit of an object that would maximize space efficiency in the oven, stack easily when empty, and be perfectly nonstick, among other qualifications.) To make a burger, the arm — an off-the-shelf model from the robotics company Kuka, modified with a proprietary gripper — grabs a small pan containing a patty and places it on a conveyor belt en route to something called an impingement oven, which blasts the patty with high heat and 65-mile-an-hour air currents to cook it rapidly.

The arm retrieves the pan and passes it off to worker two, in front of whom a conveyor belt delivers a freshly toasted bun. This worker’s job is to assemble Kernel burgers and faux-chicken sandwiches and to garnish warm vegetable sides. Worker three handles the cold items — two vegetable sides, two salads — with the help of machines that dispense precise quantities of lettuces and dressings. A contraption resembling a hardware-store paint mixer tosses salads.

None of the tech on display here looks particularly space-age, but the Kernel team estimates it replaces the equivalent of around two employees. A smaller staff reduces expenses, potentially resulting in larger profits for investors, who might be inclined to see a business like Kernel more like a tech company and less like a restaurant company. Ells is not the only restaurateur looking for ways to trim labor through automation. Sweetgreen is testing a bowl-composing robotic assembly line in two stores. White Castle is rolling out a robotic arm called Flippy 2 to work its fry stations. Chipotle has been testing a chip-frying bot, an automated guacamole-maker, and a roboticized make-line that can assemble certain digital orders.

Kernel’s stores will be staffed with three human workers. Photo: Dina Litovsky

Ells stresses that today’s Kernel is just a starting point. In the next two years, he plans to build 15 more outposts with $36 million in newly secured Series A fundraising from investors including Raga Partners, Virtru, Willoughby Capital, and Rethink Food. Ells hopes to use feedback from store employees to refine and perfect the system, which could presumably result in those people being replaced by newer and better machines. “What’s cool is that we’re building a system now that anticipates what’s coming,” he says. The plan is for additional robots to help move food through the assembly process. A droid could deliver prepped ingredients from the central kitchen to its satellites.

In the meantime, Ells is seemingly taking every opportunity the available technology will grant him to ax humans from the equation. The Kernel model does not include manned registers, ordering kiosks, or even seating. Customers will place their orders ahead of time on Kernel’s app and, when the time comes, use an SMS code to unlock a metal cubby that contains their food. Thus Kernel will not suffer from the unsightly piles of takeout containers like what he observed at Hudson Eats; the entire peak-lunch pickup experience leaves him flustered when he thinks about it. “People are looking for their name and there’s crowds of people and it’s just — it’s very disorderly,” Ells says. Kernel and its cubbies will be devoid of such human messiness. “This is a way to ensure to the customer that your food is in a secure place,” he says. “It’s yours. It’s hot and fresh and ready for you.”

Despite qualifying as among the most influential entrepreneurs of his generation, having started a business that fundamentally reshaped fast food and is today worth more than Ford Motor Company or Southwest Airlines, Steve Ells is not well known to the public. A restaurant-based reality show he co-hosted ended after one season. To my knowledge, he’s never been profiled by a business publication. Ells doesn’t offer thought leadership on LinkedIn; in fact, he doesn’t show up on social media at all. So little of Ells is in the public sphere that even his age cannot be reliably ascertained online.

Inside the restaurant industry, though, Ells is an icon, and what he’s known for isn’t a particular zeal for streamlining. Ells is a classically trained chef. According to Chipotle lore, Ells was working as a line cook at the San Francisco restaurant Stars when he discovered the ample, rice-filled burritos sold in the city’s Mission District. He recognized the genius of the setup: Using inexpensive ingredients and simple cooking techniques, you could offer fresh, flavorful food for not much more than a Big Mac. He reasoned that if he opened his own Mission-style burrito shop, replicating the assembly-line model with some of his own culinary flair, it might kick off enough cash to finance his own high-end restaurant — the ultimate prize.

As one Chipotle became three, and then 20, and then hundreds, Ells continued to think like a guy still planning for his white-tablecloth debut, maintaining a barely concealed hostility toward most of the conventions of the fast-food genre. At Chipotle, Ells made sure that the pork came from free-range pigs. The restaurants prepared the salsas and guac and many other items from fresh and sometimes even locally sourced ingredients. There were no gimmicky limited-time-only items, no combo meals, no cheesy slogans, few coupons. “Steve loathed fast food,” one former Chipotle executive told me. “Menu clutter, too much signage in the restaurant — that stuff drove him nuts.”

Where Taco Bell and McDonald’s retained food “scientists” to drive “menu innovation” — shop talk for Doritos Locos Tacos, Shamrock Shakes, and other items meant to hook customers — Ells hired award-winning chefs like Nate Appleman and Kyle Connaughton. They’d tweak practices as minuscule as the char level on the jalapeños or how onions were diced. Chipotle never managed to develop a version of queso good enough to meet Ells’s standards; it only added the item to the menu after he departed as CEO. His obsession with developing a four-ingredient, additive-free tortilla ran for years and included plant geneticists tasked with identifying new strains of wheat. “Even in the face of being told no, he kept going, until he had exhausted all options,” a former employee told me.

This time around, with Kernel, Ells has been every bit as punctilious about the food. He’s hired two chefs to oversee the restaurant’s culinary operations who are overqualified for the job: Andrew Black, formerly a sous at Eleven Madison Park and Ells’s personal chef, and Neil Stetz, the longtime chef de cuisine at Quince, a San Francisco restaurant with three Michelin stars. The duo collaborated for two years to create Kernel’s vegan menu, which I had a chance to taste one afternoon at the company’s Manhattan test kitchen.

The restaurant’s headliner is the Kernel burger, a mix of grains, legumes, and veggies with a dash of Marmite, loaded up with pickled roasted onions and tangy salsa verde. Then there’s a crispy faux-chicken sandwich, which does a solid job invoking Chick-fil-A. Kernel’s version starts with a wheat-and-soy patty made by the Boston-based start-up Motif, which is breaded, fried, and topped with thinly sliced dill pickles, chipotle mayo, and a vinegary slaw.

Ells says that nothing on the menu, which will vary over time, will exceed $14. There are currently two salads, both entrée-size but positively minimalist in the age of three-pound Chop’t and Sweetgreen creations. A Caesar combines romaine and kale with herby bread crumbs and vegan dressing. “No egg, no anchovy — it was a tough nut to crack,” Black told me. (In the end, the dressing derives much of its savoriness from roasted sunflower seeds.) The other salad is composed of sturdy greens like kale and radicchio tossed with a mustardy vinaigrette, with black lentils and a dollop of smoky white-bean hummus.

Dressing is dispensed, and salads are shaken. Dina Litovsky.
Dressing is dispensed, and salads are shaken. Dina Litovsky.
Sandwiches are wrapped by hand. Photo: Dina Litovsky

Kernel’s answer to fast-food fries is dice-size potato cubes, crunchy outside and creamy within. From a craveability standpoint, they’re probably the menu’s biggest hit. Three other vegetable sides display a studied attention to texture and flavor that are unmistakably the work of fine-dining chefs and taste like something you might find at aBCV, Loring Place, or any of the city’s other vegetable-centric restaurants. Kernel’s spiced roasted carrots are tossed with farro, jammy roasted dates, toasted almonds, and salsa verde. Beets come with a sweet-and-salty seed crunch, green hummus, and quinoa. A cup of crispy cucumbers, amply seasoned with salt and vinegar, also includes fresh mint and basil, wild rice, chile jam, and toasted cashews.

For dessert, there are two coaster-size cookies. One is dark chocolate chip, made with sea salt and toasted whole wheat. The second is oatmeal raisin walnut, with a tender, barely baked consistency that transported me to Mrs. Fields. “This is one of our best accomplishments,” says Black, who struggled mightily to develop a great cookie without the use of butter or eggs. These two are the product of hundreds of tries, sometimes tweaking ingredients by a few grams in either direction.

While Ells was at Chipotle, his devotion to the food sometimes made for strained relationships with the people who made the chain tick. Former colleagues described him to me as visionary but difficult to work for — uncompromising and a little fanatical. “Steve’s frustration was that he could never achieve perfection, because the people around him weren’t at the same level of fastidiousness,” one told me. Another described Ells’s almost superhuman ability to scan a room and catch minor flaws, like a team member holding a knife in the wrong way or mismatched lightbulbs used in ceiling fixtures. I saw it myself at Hudson Eats, when he spotted a worker cleaning a pastry case with a type of wipe he could apparently tell just by looking was not food-safe. At the Kernel location on Park Avenue, conversation came to a halt at one point because he caught the scent of a dirty mop — a smell that he alone could discern.

Perhaps for Ells, the true appeal of Kernel’s system doesn’t just lie in efficiency but control — something that, after decades of nearly unimpeded success, he lost in 2015. That year, dozens of people who had eaten at Chipotle became sick with E. coli poisoning. Further foodborne-illness outbreaks followed, wrecking the company’s reputation for serving quality ingredients, knocking billions of dollars off its market cap, and ultimately leading to Ells’s ouster as CEO in 2017. (He was replaced by the former leader of Taco Bell.) In the end, the restaurant’s biggest draw was also its biggest vulnerability: tens of thousands of low-wage employees working with raw meat and fresh produce, which opened the door to cross-contamination. What failed Ells happens to be the very thing that he’s working to eliminate at Kernel: human error.

People can say all day long that they want to sit down, and that they want more human interaction, and I’m not going to argue with them,” Ells says one afternoon over $28 salads at Sant Ambroeus in the West Village. He’s lived in the neighborhood since moving to New York from Denver in 2008, inhabiting a succession of ever-grander homes. (His current residence — the result of a yearslong construction project combining two townhouses into 16,000 square feet of living space — is just around the corner.) With Kernel, he’s betting that customers care far less about warmth and hospitality, and more about speed, price, and convenience, than they are willing to admit.

When it comes to lunch in New York, history is on Ells’s side. Up through the 19th century, the word “lunch” referred to a handheld snack. Lunch came into its own as a meal after the shift to offices and factories prevented workers from returning home during the workday to eat a sit-down midday meal, which was then known as dinner. “‘Lunch’ is defined by work,” says the culinary historian Laura Shapiro, who co-curated an exhibit on the subject at the New York Public Library about a decade ago. “It’s the meal that wears the workday as its identity.”

Toiling New Yorkers lunched at hot dog carts and oyster stands, cafeterias and deli counters, and eventually the automat — that icon of the prewar city, remembered for its futuristic, coin-operated cubbies. Wasn’t that, in its own way, a forerunner of Kernel? According to Shapiro, not exactly. Automats had fully staffed cafeterias and large dining areas where patrons could sit and eat for as long as they wanted. “You could be poor and sit at a table and mix the ketchup into hot water and pretend it was soup,” Shapiro said. “The automat gave you time, if you wanted it.”

I often see people on social media mourn the decline of restaurants as a “third place” — a social space separate from home and work. But Ells is far from alone in suspecting that diners don’t really want to linger. Blank Street Coffee and &Pizza are two other nascent chains that have seized on the idea that leasing smaller spaces can lead to a better bottom line. Sweetgreen, Panera, Starbucks, and Chipotle have all been experimenting with smaller, pickup-only stores.

The slow march of automation, the shrinking of restaurants, the disappearance of seating: Regardless of what we might say to one another, our habits as consumers consistently demonstrate that we want these things — or at least are willing to trade them for a cheaper bite. In the lead-up to the pandemic, visits to waiter-service restaurants across the U.S. had been on a slow but fairly persistent decline since 2006. Even fast-food joints have struggled to get people to sit down: By one estimate, from September 2022, only 15 percent of all visitors to counter-service restaurants had chosen to dine in in the prior year. Apps like DoorDash allow users to instruct delivery workers to drop bags of food at the door, ring the bell, and leave. Outside of cities, chain restaurants have committed to big investments in drive-throughs. We have COVID to thank for some of these things, and it’s unclear whether we’ll revert to past habits. “My prediction is that people are going to find really great hospitality in the notion that ordering is very convenient,” Ells told me early on in our time together as I probed him about Kernel’s lack of a human touch. I have a feeling he might be right — and that in a handful of years, when more of our meals are served this way, we might even be nostalgic for the seething hordes of a place like Hudson Eats.

Kernel’s cubbies. Photo: Dina Litovsky
The Fast-Food Obsessive Who Still Wants to Solve Lunch