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Chipotle, already a tech leader, has some more advances in the works

Many chains have copied the fast casual’s drive-thrus and digital makelines. Here’s a sneak peak at what’s next for the burrito brand (and it just might include an avocado-slicing robot).
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Photo courtesy Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle Mexican Grill has long been a leader in the restaurant tech space.

Just look at how many other chains have copied the fast casual’s order-ahead drive-thru Chipotlanes or its second makelines dedicated to digital orders.

But the fast-growing chain, in reporting its fourth-quarter earnings, revealed some hints at the next technological innovations on its agenda.

Chipotle, which has nearly 3,000 locations, said it expects its general and administrative spending to be around $101 million in the first quarter, with plans to increase it slightly each future quarter, largely because of increases in spending on technology.

“Another important growth driver that accelerated during the pandemic has been our technology transformation, which is helping Chipotle become a real food-focused digital lifestyle brand,” CEO Brian Niccol told investors Tuesday.

For the future, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based company is leveraging technology to deal with staffing, labor usage and restaurant traffic.

And it said it is not opposed to bringing in robots to ease operations, so long as automation doesn’t erase the human element from its business.

“How do we get rid of the jobs people frankly don’t love doing” Niccol said. “Cleaning dishes all day, not a fun job; hard job, frankly; wet job. If we can find ways to eliminate those tasks … Like, we’re always going to be cutting and coring avocados. But if there was a way to cut and core the avocados so that all our team member has to do is mash and add the salt, add the lime, add the onions, that would make their job so much better.”

Chipotle could potentially use “co-botics” to retain its personality while also boosting productivity,” Chief Restaurant Officer Scott Boatwright said.

“You don’t remove the human element,” Boatwright said. “You leverage robotics plus human experience. That is not out of the realm of possibility.”

Chipotle also said it is deploying a new labor scheduling tool that uses artificial intelligence and analytics to better plan. The technology uses real-time data, rather than relying on historic trends, Niccol said.

“We should then end up in a scenario where we don’t run out of guacamole at the end of the day,” he said. “How do we help our team members know when to cook more chicken throughout the day, when to make guacamole and how much guacamole to make after lunch because we want to be in the Chipotle business from open to close.”

The fast-casual said it is also looking for ways to use technology to improve order accuracy and timeliness.

Chipotle’s digital sales grew 4% in the fourth quarter, to 42% of sales, or $811 million. The chain’s full-year digital sales of $3.4 billion are nearly 3.5 times more than the company saw before the pandemic.

The chain said it will continue to invest in technology to support digital innovation and grow its rewards program, which currently has 26.5 million members.

“We’re focusing a lot more on personalization by creating journeys, primarily for new and at-risk customers that can influence guest behaviors and ultimately drive more frequency,” Niccol said.

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