Advertisement

Review: New Fast Casual Restaurant Kernel Offers Robots, A Chipotle Pedigree, And Decent Vegan Food

all the Kernel food
all the Kernel food - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

The future of food is finally here. No, I'm not just talking about plant-based eating, which has grown in popularity in recent years, but the intersection of meat-free meals and technology-driven restaurants — a duo that can help move the needle in climate change. At least that's the goal of the newly opened New York City vegan fast-casual chain, Kernel.

While there are already some great plant-based options at popular fast food chains and even fantastic vegan restaurants in every state, New York, in particular, is known for its great vegan scene. From spots for vegan noodles to vegan cocktails in New York City, a plant-based diner can get basically anything they want in The Big Apple. That's why, when I heard about this new plant-based spot, Kernel, I practically rolled my eyes.

But, this new chain was started by Steve Ells, the founder and former CEO of Chipotle (which currently has a trendy wellness-inspired new item), and he had a vision for taking plant-based dining to the future — with robots. Do I have your attention now? As a long-time vegetarian and New Yorker, I couldn't say no to the opportunity to try this new restaurant. So, I sampled all of the new menu items at Kernel and offered my unbiased review.

Read more: The 15 Healthiest Chip Brands, Ranked From Worst To Best

What Is The Kernel Restaurant?

outside Kernel store
outside Kernel store - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

Kernel is a plant-based fast-food restaurant that serves up burgers, salads, chicken sandwiches, vegetable sides, and cookies. The menu is chef-driven and very fresh ingredient-focused. While there are plenty of other plant-based fast-food restaurants out there, Kernel is unique in the restaurant experience. Between prepping and cooking food or taking orders, many restaurants have upwards of 15 people working at a time. Kernel, on the other hand, does most of its work using robots.

Let me explain. The food itself is prepared by a human team in a central kitchen and then transported via a cooler attached to a bike to the location (soon to be, multiple locations) throughout the day to ensure freshness. Then, robots help on the line to finish cooking and packaging the food with just three human staff members in the store replenishing the robot's inventory.

The ordering process is also unique where guests order on the online application or website, either in advance or upon arrival by scanning a QR code. Once ordered and paid through the app, guests will get an estimated wait time. When the food is ready, they'll get a text with a locker number that is holding the food. Finally, once guests find their locker they can text "unlock" to the phone number, and their locker is opened. This allows for a seamless, no-contact ordering and pickup experience.

Price And Availability

bags of food in locker
bags of food in locker - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

Kernel currently only has one location at 315 Park Avenue South in Manhattan — in Flatiron on Park Avenue South between 24th and 23rd Street. The restaurant is only open weekdays for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. More locations are expected to open soon.

While a full meal will cost you more than the average fast-food chain, it's a fairly good deal for what you're getting. The Kernel salad without vegan chicken runs $10 and with vegan chicken costs $14. Even with one $4 side, a salad is about as expensive as one at most other fast-casual establishments. The burger is $7 and the chicken sandwich is $9 running pretty on par, if not cheaper, than many other vegan sandwich establishments — but I'll get to that later. Finally, the cookies are $3 each and are well worth the price and the sauces are each $1. Generally speaking, a full meal here will range from $11 to $22, depending on what you order.

Taste Test: Sides

sides on table
sides on table - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

Side options include crispy potatoes, marinated beets, roasted carrots, and crunchy cucumbers. All of the sides arrived as colorful cups that felt fresh and exactly what a vegetable side should be. The toppings were placed carefully in each cup, making it feel individually made rather than scooped from a larger container.

The crispy potatoes claim to be "thrice cooked" and come with your choice of sauce. While I was super impressed with the ventilated packaging that helped keep the potatoes crisp in transit, I was overall disappointed in these. They were crispy and tot-like but had a strange stringy texture that just didn't hit for some reason. I'd skip these next time.

The marinated beets come with quinoa, super-seed crunch, and green hummus. The beets were roasted well and had a vinegary delicious flavor, and the quinoa brought a great texture to the dish. Next, the roasted carrots come with farro, roasted dates, salsa verde, and optional spiced almonds. The carrots were cooked until soft, but stayed toothsome, and had a really sweet and nutty flavor. While both sides were sweet, Kernel did a great job balancing the flavors and textures well. Lastly, the crunchy cucumbers were my favorite and came with wild rice, basil, cilantro, mint, chili jam, and optional cashews. They were super crunchy, herbaceous, spicy, and vinegary and reminded me of just a perfect Asian-style cucumber salad.

Taste Test: Cookies

two cookies on table
two cookies on table - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

I can't stop thinking about these cookies. The perfectly round oatmeal raisin walnut cookie and the chocolate chunk cookie both had a great crisp exterior and soft interior. They were the perfect size for a cookie and were topped with a generous sprinkle of salt for the ultimate sweet and salty balance. In fact, these cookies weren't even all that sweet, which for me was a very positive thing.

The chocolate chip cookie was made with olive oil, dark chocolate, toasted wheat, and that fantastic flaky salt, making them salty, savory, and chocolatey. But while I'm usually a chocolate chip cookie lover, these oatmeal raisin cookies totally blew us away. Each cookie was made with toasted walnuts, oats, raisins, vanilla bean, and that flaky sea salt I couldn't get enough of. They were savory and delicious, with juicy raisins and a nutty cookie base. Both crisp cookies were impressive for anyone, but especially when you remember the restaurant isn't a bakery and it's completely vegan.

Taste Test: Sauces

three sauces on table
three sauces on table - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

It's important to note that the potatoes come with a side of ketchup, to begin with, so there's no need to order any extra unless you're a ketchup fiend. While I wasn't expecting anything groundbreaking here, the ketchup seemed pretty ordinary despite being housemade. It was subtly sweet and acidic but didn't offer anything special.

The salsa verde, while not what most would traditionally think of as a salsa verde, was delicious. The dip was a blend of avocados, herbs, and chili and had a really creamy texture. The herbs were at the forefront of the sauce flavor-wise.

My favorite was definitely the chipotle mayo which is homemade and made without any eggs. The website describes it as creamy, smoky, and spicy — and I'd agree — though it wasn't as spicy as I expected. It was super smoky and worked really well on both of the sandwiches and with the potatoes. I'd recommend a sauce to go with one for your sandwiches or potatoes when ordering.

Taste Test: Kernel Chicken Salad

Kernel chicken salad
Kernel chicken salad - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

Guests have the option to order the Kernel salad with vegan chicken or without featuring kale, radicchio, savoy cabbage, and chickpeas tossed in the Kernel dressing. I was instantly impressed with how full and hearty the salads were. Each came pre-tossed in the dressing, which had been described on social media as Caesar, but I'd compare it to a cross between a Green Goddess and a vinaigrette. It was herbaceous, light, and fresh, and the hearty greens held up well in the dressing. I even had leftovers the next day and the salad didn't feel soggy at all.

I was impressed that the salad was chopped into bite-sized pieces so it was really easy to eat. The vegan chicken was piled high, perfectly bite-sized, and juicy, with a subtle rosemary flavor that I loved. Truthfully, I wouldn't have thought twice about it being vegan if I didn't know. The chickpeas were also a great touch to help the salad feel filling.

One major downside was that, as of writing this, there's no way to customize, like getting the dressing on the side. Additionally, the plain salad didn't have a ton to it. A pro tip I found later is to order a few sides and mix those in to help tailor the salad more. When I had leftovers the next day, I mixed the sides into the salad itself and it was a perfect way to make it feel different.

Taste Test: Crispy Chicken Sandwich

crispy chicken sandwich
crispy chicken sandwich - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

The crispy chicken sandwich is a crispy vegan cutlet served with classic slaw, pickles, and chipotle mayo on a toasted brioche bun. The cutlet was ultra crispy, but you don't just taste breading when you bite into it. The slaw and pickles are perfectly dressed in a vinaigrette without being soggy. They piled on just enough to add a great textural and flavor contrast to the soft bun and crunchy cutlet.

The cutlet interior was soft, juicy, and looked realistic, and you could hear the crunch when biting into the sandwich it was so crispy. It was perfectly sized for the bun so nothing fell out. The sandwich was super hearty and filling — perfect for anyone looking for a meat-free crispy chicken sandwich. The chipotle mayo added a really great smoky heat without a ton of spice.

Unfortunately, there's no opportunity to customize this so this can be tricky if you don't like pickles or chipotle sauce. Also, I found the bun to be just fine. It didn't get soggy and held up really well, but I was missing that buttery flavor. But, overall, I loved this sandwich and thought it was the best item on the menu.

Taste Test: Kernel Burger

Kernel veggie burger
Kernel veggie burger - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

Kernel's roasted veggie patty is made with sweet potato, quinoa, and chickpeas and is piled onto a toasted brioche bun with salsa verde and pickled onions. At first, I thought the burger looked a little sad, but my mind was quickly changed when I took a bite. The exterior was nice and crisp and the inside was soft and packed with hearty beans and grains. I love that it held together so well and wasn't dry at all — both major issues I find with these kinds of patties.

The flavor was fantastic and the pickled onions, which were more like a vinegary caramelized onion, were the stars. It was seasoned really well and wasn't trying to be meat — just a really good veggie burger. Again, the sandwich can't be customized and I found the bun to be a little disappointing. I also felt like the burger needed a little more sauce and some kind of textural contrast that lettuce would usually bring. In general, I'd recommend this to someone looking for a veggie burger that feels like just a really good veggie burger, not a mock-meat patty.

Kernel Menu Vs. Other Vegan Fast Casual Restaurants

burger on parchment
burger on parchment - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

The dishes based on flavor alone really stacked up to many other vegan fast-casual restaurants. The salads and sides were super fresh, the burger was flavorful, and the chicken sandwich, in particular, was really special. Not many spots have such a good sandwich.

But, while the burger, chicken sandwich, salads, and cookies are very delicious, the current menu is quite limited and not as customizable as many other vegan fast-casual chains. But, if you don't love making decisions and want something really straightforward, one of the major benefits of Kernel is the streamlined menu and incredibly easy ordering and pickup that no other vegan restaurant has. The contactless process is a win for many New Yorkers on the go.

Price-wise, Kernel is pretty competitive on the market. Other vegan fast-casual chain burgers typically run close to $10, like Beatnic which charges $9.95 to $11.95 for a burger. So, it's overall on par. The salad also was similar to many fast-casual options on the market, too.

Is It Worth Dining At Kernel?

all food on the table
all food on the table - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

If you're particularly interested in vegan food, Kernel is worth a try, but I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way. While the burger was very good, I'd skip the burger and potatoes if you have time for just one visit, and opt for the chicken sandwich with the cucumbers, instead. Truthfully, there are better veggie burgers in New York and the potatoes were disappointing.

But if you just want really good food that happens to be vegan or are regularly in the area, the vegan chicken salad with one of the three veggie sides added is worth a visit for sure. Plus, the cookies, of course.

In short; yes it's worth eating at Kernel. If I worked or lived closer, I could see myself stopping in regularly for the salad and a side to mix in, which is relatively equivalent in price to a Sweetgreen salad. Do I think going out of my way to get to the current location or changing my schedule to meet their current open hours is worth it? Not really. But maybe, in time, it'll expand its hours and locations so that won't be a concern.

Methodology

Food on table
Food on table - Arielle Weg / Tasting Table

As mentioned earlier, I've been a vegetarian for over 18 years, and I've lived in New York for over four years. I ordered one of everything on the menu to test and sampled them all with my fiancé who does eat meat to get his perspective and input, as well.

I ordered the food through the app and brought it home to test. I reviewed the food while it was fresh, and even tried the salads, sides, and cookies the next day to ensure they maintained freshness.

Read the original article on Tasting Table.