Chipotle Mexican Grill is testing whether automation can make customers’ burrito bowls and salads.
It’s the second time the burrito chain has publicly announced testing automation at its innovation center. Chippy, Chipotle’s first foray into automation, is a robot that makes tortilla chips. The company began testing Chippy at a California restaurant a year ago after it passed the first round of testing.
Restaurants ranging from Sweetgreen to Starbucks have been investing in automation to cut down on labor costs and improve order consistency and speed. But robotics and artificial intelligence software can be expensive, so it will likely be years before the technology pays off for restaurants.
Still, many operators have big hopes for automation’s future in the restaurant industry. Sweetgreen opened its first automated location in May and CEO Jonathan Neman already expects all of the chain’s future restaurants to be automated in five years.
The Chipotle test announced Tuesday is part of a collaboration with Hyphen, a startup that’s trying to automate restaurant kitchens. Last year, Chipotle invested an undisclosed amount in Hyphen, formerly known as Ono Food. The startup has a valuation of $104 million, according to PitchBook.
All Chipotle restaurants have two make lines to assemble orders: one in the front for diners who order in person and another in the kitchen for digital orders. Roughly two-thirds of all Chipotle digital orders are either burrito bowls or salads, according to Chipotle.
The Hyphen robot will make burrito bowls and salads for digital orders only. The technology moves the bowls underneath the digital make line to dispense the correct ingredients. Simultaneously, an employee can assemble digital orders for other items, such as tacos, quesadillas and burritos, on the digital make line. When the robot is done making an order, it sends the bowl or salad back up to the surface so employees can properly package the order.