Chipotle CTO: AI Could Transform Everything From Food Prep to Dishwashing


At Chipotle Mexican Grill, automation is slowly taking over kitchens as part of the fast-casual giant’s efforts to boost back-of-house efficiency and mitigate labor challenges.

Most recently, the brand announced a partnership with food automation company Vebu to test an avocado processing robot for guacamole, dubbed Autocado. In an interview with PYMNTS, Chipotle Chief Customer and Technology Officer Curt Garner spoke to the restaurant’s automation goals going forward.

“We see opportunities for more automation in food prep and dish washing,” Garner said. “These are areas that consistently come up in conversations with crew members. … We see potential in leveraging AI [artificial intelligence] to help our managers be more precise in the amount of food they’re prepping for their restaurants. Anything we can do to help our teams more easily recover from a strong sales day is an area we’re prioritizing.”

Data cited in “Inflation Makes Technology Table Stakes for Restaurants,” the March edition of PYMNTS’ “Money Mobility Tracker®,” created in collaboration with Ingo Money, reveal that three-quarters of restaurant operators plan to adopt technology this year to address their labor and cost challenges, and 90% of restaurant owners report that they see increased back-of-house automation as a key way to free up time to focus on more important tasks.

Back-of-house automation of this kind may help restaurants accomplish key tasks, but when customers become aware of it, it could pose challenges for loyalty, according to research from PYMNTS’ new exclusive study “Connected Dining: The Robot Will Take Your Order Now,” which draws from a census-balanced survey of nearly 2,000 U.S. consumers.

The study reveals that two-thirds of diners are uninterested in robotics or automated systems preparing or cooking food. Eighty-three percent of these disinterested consumers cite concerns that their food will be lower quality and less personalized, and about three-quarters are worried about job displacement for human workers.

Perhaps in an effort to mitigate consumers’ concerns while still assuring shareholders of these efficiency gains, Chipotle is emphasizing the collaborative element of its robotics.

“We don’t have plans to automate the hand mashing process, because it’s essential for us to maintain the culinary experience of hand preparing the guacamole to our exact standards,” Garner said, adding that the machine automates the processes of “cutting, coring, and scooping avocados,” which are “the least preferred parts” for employees.

Granted, there is some interest in automated food prep — specifically, among millennials. The same Connected Dining report found that 41% of 42% of bridge millennials are very or extremely interested in automated food preparation. Plus, 1 in 3 men (but only half that share of women) stated that they were interested in visiting a restaurant that uses robotics.

Plus, a study cited in the June edition of PYMNTS’ “B2B and Digital Payments Tracker®,” a collaboration with American Express, “Inflation Puts Technology on the Menu for Restaurants,” revealed that 73% of consumers prefer automation over interacting with staff members in at least one area of a business.

Looking ahead, Garner stated that Chipotle will continue “exploring collaborative robotics to drive efficiencies and ease pain points for our employees.”