Chipotle, the burrito-slinging tech company
VC, robotics, Roblox, “proof of steak,” and a bit of TikTok trouble
Chipotle was a category-definer when it started to grow decades ago. Fancier than fast food but more chill than a Chili’s, the chain helped define “fast casual” for plenty of Americans. In recent years, Chipotle has worked toward redefining itself using technology. It debuted a robust mobile app, online ordering, pickup shelves for digital orders, white-label delivery, and even the “Chipotlane,” another pickup avenue for people placing orders ahead.
Now the next chapter of reinvention is here: robotics, automation, artificial intelligence. Might the chain once known for popularizing fancy fast food now set the standard for mass market technological optimization?
In a trio of announcements last week, Chipotle announced new technology pilots at some stores that — and of course this is what the press release says — “enhance its employee and guest experience by streamlining operations and reducing friction.” (If a restaurant technology announcement doesn’t come with guaranteed streamlined operations and reduced friction”, it’s not really a restaurant tech announcement, prove me wrong.)
In Southern California, Chipotle is testing a “kitchen management system” in eight different stores. It uses cameras and machine learning technology to monitor, analyze, and ultimately improve efficiency. It monitors ingredients in real-time, and prompts kitchen staff to prep and cook certain items so they’re ready to go.
In 73 Ohio locations, it’s using new location-based tech inside its app that lets Chipotle message guests about orders based on their location — including if they went to the wrong pick-up spot. Useful! (I’ve never done this at a Chipotle, but I did once lose a Starbucks order in a strip mall complex with four different Starbucks locations while visiting my in-laws in suburban Kansas City.)
And in one lucky Chipotle also in Southern California, Chippy, the tortilla chip-making robot is finally making its restaurant debut. (The company has been testing Chippy for a while in its test kitchens.) Chippy is a heavily customized bot; it’s tuned to replicate Chipotle’s tortilla chip recipe but also to replicate the slight flavor variations that might occur when an actual human is making them. That is: Chippy’s chips won’t be uniformly perfect and exactly the same; they’ll look and taste like they do now. This will likely be a very long test. (For reference: It took Chipotle three years to roll out quesadillas across all of its stores; imagine how much longer it could take to install Chippy from coast to coast.)
There’s more: in April, Chipotle announced it was launching a venture fund called Cultivate Next to invest in early-stage tech companies that could, essentially, help Chipotle’s future business. It announced two investments over the summer: one in a plant-based meat company; the other in a robotics company called Hyphen that makes a robot called the Makeline.
Here’s how restaurant robotics expert and friend of Expedite Chris Albrecht explains it in his newsletter, OttoMate:
Hyphen’s Makeline doubles the output of a traditional makeline by adding a robotic layer underneath all those ingredients. The best way to think about it is actually to think about Chipotle. When you order in person, a Chipotle staffer walks down the counter (the makeline) with you, adding all the stuff you want. With Hyphen’s Makeline, that same person is there, but underneath, a robotic system pulls from those same ingredients to fulfill digital orders simultaneously. Twice the output in the same footprint. SMART!
One thing these tech announcements have in common: they’re not operating in full view of guests. In fact, when these technologies work at their best, they’re completely out of a guest’s view, working in the background to help staff but not overly tech-ify the restaurant experience. Perhaps that’s why this back-of-house technology is so attractive to Chipotle, which has spent decades honing its image — including a very famous rebound from a plague of very serious food safety issues.
Chipotle sits in a privileged position, with the money to invest in both readily accessible robotics and AI and technology that could grow to be useful for the restaurants’ future. That means it can lead the charge for restaurants hoping to to convert to robotics- and AI-assisted food prep at scale. In doing so, Chipotle benefits from total tech-assisted optimization but also from a new round of category leadership, redefining “fast casual” to include best-in-class tech.
This is already sort of happening. For example: What’s a fast casual restaurant without a dedicated order-ahead app? Tech has already creeped into customers’ understanding of how restaurants work. Adding in that next layer, largely out of view from the average Chipotle patron, changes the business without really changing the business — still fancier than fast food, but undeniably tapped into what comes next.
Since we’re already talking about Chipotle and technology,
it’s worth noting Chipotle’s simultaneous techy marketing push.
The company recently introduced a new ingredient, garlic guajillo steak, available for a limited time inside burritos, quesadillas, whatever else. Tim Carman from the Washington Post loved it, writing in a review:
“This stuff is as flavorful as mass-produced beef gets, down to the not-insignificant heat of the guajillo and chipotle chiles, a pair of peppers not exactly known for their ability to ignite the palate.”
This was the same new ingredient Chipotle simultaneously launched in the metaverse, prompting Eater to ask, “Can you eat it?” (and other questions). Users on Roblox, an online gaming platform, can visit the “Chipotle Grill Simulator” to learn more about the new ingredient — an intentional play for Gen Z attention, per Chipotle’s chief marketer.
Chipotle also proved it can speak web3 with a recent “proof of steak” promotion tied to the Ethereum merge and new “proof of stake” mechanism. (Here’s more from a writer who went searching for an almost-free lunch on Fortune Crypto.) Chipotle promised users a 99.95% discount when paying in Ether, a number associated with the percent reduction of Ethereum’s energy consumption after the merge. The promo sold out early — even though the aforementioned Fortune writer couldn’t get it to work.
Of course, no one brand can stay ahead of every digital trend. Last month, a Chipotle “hack” went viral on TikTok, viewed by millions of people since July. Users shared that it was possible to “hack” a $9 burrito for just $3 by ordering a single taco, an extra tortilla, and a bunch of toppings on the side on the restaurant’s app. Once Chipotle corporate caught on to the plan, though, it 86’d single taco orders on the app.
Per Chipotle, customers can still order a single taco made by a human, in person, in stores, IRL. You know, the old way.