Chipotle Mexican Grill, the popular fast-casual chain, is testing a new robotic automation system that can make salads and bowls to customer specifications. The system, developed in collaboration with Hyphen, a kitchen technology company, is designed to integrate with human workers and improve the efficiency and accuracy of digital orders.
How the robotic system works
The robotic system, which has yet to be given a catchy name, is currently being tested at the Chipotle Cultivate Center in Irvine, California, where the chain experiments with new innovations. The system works as follows:
- When a customer places a digital order through the Chipotle app or website, the order is sent to the robotic system, which automatically dispenses the required ingredients into a bowl.
- The system can handle up to 65% of all digital orders, which are mostly salads and bowls. Burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and kids’ meals are still made by human workers.
- Once the bowl or salad is complete, it pops up from the enclosed automated work process line through an opening in the countertop level where the human Chipotle employees work.
- A crew member then puts a lid on the dish and adds any additional items to the order, such as chips, salsa, or drinks.
The robotic system is expected to be rolled out slowly in select locations in Southern California in the upcoming months.
Why Chipotle is investing in robotics
Chipotle’s chief customer and technology officer, Curt Garner, said that the goal of using robotics is not to replace workers but to enhance their potential and provide a better dining experience for customers. He said that robotics can help with tasks that are tedious or repetitive, such as cutting avocados or frying chips.
“Chipotle’s new digital makeline built by Hyphen embodies our commitment to leveraging robotics to unlock the human potential of our workforce, ensuring an elevated dining experience for our guests,” Garner said in a statement.
Chipotle has been experimenting with robotics for a while. In March 2022, it announced its first robotic crew member, an AI kitchen assistant named Chippy from Miso Robotics, which can make and season tortilla chips. In July 2023, it introduced Autocado, a robot prototype that can prep avocados before they are hand-mashed for guacamole.
Garner said that Chipotle consulted with its workers to determine which tasks are best outsourced to robots and which ones require human touch and creativity. He said that robotics can also help with meeting the rising demand of digital orders, which reached $3 billion in 2022, accounting for about 38% of sales overall.
“We’re operating like two restaurants out of one,” he said.
How customers are reacting to Chipotle’s robots
Chipotle’s customers have mixed reactions to the use of robots in its restaurants. Some are excited about the possibility of getting their orders faster and more accurately, while others are concerned about the impact on workers and the quality of food.
“I think it’s cool that they are using robots to make salads and bowls. I usually order online and sometimes they mess up my order or take too long. I hope this will make it easier and quicker,” said Jessica Lee, a regular Chipotle customer from Los Angeles.
However, some customers are skeptical about how robots can replicate the freshness and flavor of Chipotle’s food. They also worry that robots will take away jobs from human workers or reduce their interaction with them.
“I don’t like the idea of robots making my food. I like to see how they make it and customize it according to my taste. I also like to chat with the staff and tip them well. I think robots will make it less personal and less enjoyable,” said Daniel Kim, another Chipotle fan from Irvine.
Chipotle assures its customers that its robots are not meant to replace its workers but to complement them. It says that its workers will still be involved in making burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and kids’ meals, as well as adding any extras to the orders. It also says that its robots will follow its exact recipes and standards to ensure consistent quality and taste.
Chipotle is not the only fast-casual chain that is using robotics to make food. Sweetgreen, another salad chain, has deployed an automated system in Naperville, Illinois, which can make up to 100 salads in 15 minutes with better accuracy than its human co-workers. A second system is expected to be operational later this year in Huntington Beach, California.