The robot uprising has begun…maybe. According to CNBC, Chipotle Mexican Grill is currently testing automated systems for crafting its salads and burrito bowls. And this is not the first time either.
A year ago, a California Chipotle location began using a robot known as Chippy that makes the restaurant’s tortilla chips. Chippy had done well in its initial testing round and was put into regular use in the restaurant following its successful proof of concept. But this is just the most recent instance of robots being used to reduce labor costs in the restaurant industry, where workers are already paid well below minimum wage and rely on tips to make a living.
Afte the success of Chippy, the tortilla chip-making robot, Chipotle is now experimenting with a robot that will put together burrito bowls.
In addition to Chipotle, Starbucks, Sweetgreen, and other restaurant companies have in recent years attempted to use robotic assistance to offset the cost of employing humans. The move is also said to be focused on increasing consistency in the fulfillment of orders, as well as the speed at which those orders are produced. However, these automated systems come at a cost of their own, which is generally a high initial payout for both the mechanics and the artificial intelligence software, meaning these investments could take quite some time to bring restaurants a good return.
Chipotle says that two-thirds of their digital orders currently consist of salads or burrito bowls.
That doesn’t stop restaurants like Chipotle from continuing to test and implement automated systems. Many restaurant companies seem optimistic about robotic instrumentation’s future in the food service industry. Jonathan Neman, for example, who is the CEO of Sweetgreen, said he expects all of the restaurants in the chain to be automated within the next five years following the opening of Sweetgreen’s first automated location in May.
The announced test at Chipotle restaurants is being undertaken as a cooperative effort with Hyphen, a robotics startup specializing in automating kitchens in restaurants. Formerly known as Ono Food, Hyphen received an investment from Chipotle last year, though the amount of that investment has not been made public. According to the research and global capital data firm Pitchbook, the startup is currently valued at $104 million.
That’s a lot of Chipotle burrito bowls. Those bowls are currently purchased either in the well-known assembly line where workers make them to order or via digital orders. Chipotle says that two-thirds of their digital orders currently consist of salads or burrito bowls. In the new robotic setup, Hyphen’s robot will be responsible only for the digital orders and not for the assembly line orders placed by walk-in customers.
…Chipotle might not be ushering in a robotic takeover just yet, but the seemingly eternal struggle between automation and human labor is certainly continuing to move forward.
The robot will build Chipotle’s burrito bowls and salads by moving the bowl under the correct dispensers, which will put the ingredients into the bowl. The bowl will then be delivered to employees who will package the order. Other orders, such as burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, will still be built by human employees.
This latest move by Chipotle toward automation, along with their investment in Hyphen, indicates the company’s confidence that this will ultimately be a cost-effective measure that will improve service for their customers. It remains to be seen whether or not it will hurt their employees. While it is possible that the automated assistance will merely take stress off employees who will work the same number of hours but perform less labor, it is also possible that some employees will be replaced altogether.
So, Chipotle might not be ushering in a robotic takeover just yet, but the seemingly eternal struggle between automation and human labor is certainly continuing to move forward.