Stanford engineers team up with Michelin-star chef to build modular restaurants

While studying engineering at Stanford, Alex Kolchinski, Alex Gruebele and Max Perham met and bonded around the lack of food options on campus and the cost of the options that were there.

“Even on a subsidized meal plan, it would cost $10 for lunch and more for dinner,” Kolchinski told TechCrunch. “I would sit and do my work in the dining hall just to be able to eat two lunches. Alex (Gruebele) would just go to Chipotle and spend his stipend there.”

While thinking about how to provide good food at a lower cost, both Kolchinski and Gruebele, who were doing PhD work involving robotics, got to thinking about how robots could help people with meal prepping and other tasks.

“It turns out that a $10 burrito bowl really costs $3 in food costs, and the rest of the money goes to places like labor, overhead and real estate,” Kolchinski added. “If we built a self-contained restaurant, we would bring down the price of really good food, and it would be close by.”

Mezli bowl animation

Animation of how a Mezli bowl comes together. Image Credits: Mezli

The trio paired up with Michelin-star chef Eric Minnich, who was previously part of the founding culinary team and executive chef of Spanish restaurant The Commissary in San Francisco, to start Mezli, a company building fully autonomous modular restaurants. Most of the plans were laid out last year, and started in January at Y Combinator.

Mezli’s prototype robot restaurant is making a minority of the bowls served to customers and is supplemented by a human-powered kitchen. It is up and running and serving customers from the company’s KitchenTown location in San Mateo. The machines take up a 10-foot by 20-foot space and are freestanding. They are loaded with ingredients, initially offering Mediterranean-style grain bowls, side dishes and drinks.

The bowls start at $6.99. Diners can order directly from the restaurant or order online and pick up the food or have it delivered. The test location is already showing promise: 44% of customers who have tried the food have become repeat customers, Kolchinski said.

The company is now working on its third version of its prototype that will be ready for a public launch next year, he said. That momentum is backed by a $3 million seed round from investors including Metaplanet, roboticist Pieter Abbeel, restaurateur Zaid Ayoub and Y Combinator. That new funding will enable the company to add more talent, parts, food and operational expenses.

Once the company can scale, Mezli will be able to mass produce thousands of the modular restaurants and deploy them in a fraction of the time and money it takes for traditional restaurants to get up and running, Kolchinski added.

“We will be scaling up to a few locations and then mass producing them,” he said. “We expect to hit 1,000 locations faster than other restaurants due to our mass production method.”

One of Mezli’s backers, Pieter Abbeel, is a professor at UC Berkeley and an entrepreneur on the founding team of both Gradescope and Covariant. He heard about Mezli from some of the founding teams’ classmates and wanted to get involved.

He was attracted to the company’s vision of providing healthy food that is more affordable and accessible. As a scientist himself, he also liked the “first principles” approach to using business and engineering to reduce the bottleneck of getting food into people’s hands and how the food is served.

“It resonates with me,” Abbeel said. “Anything physical is always harder than you think, so if you don’t come up with a first principles way to solve it, it will be difficult. In addition, from day one, the food was being served and that is compelling.”