An innovation not quite as near is Chipotle’s “Hyphen” platform. In July, the chain’s “Cultivate Next” venture—a $50 million out-of-the-gate fund designed to make early stage investments—announced it was funneling resources into Hyphen, a foodservice platform designed to help “restaurant owners, operators, and budding chefs move their business forward by automating kitchen operations.”
Hyphen’s first product, “The Makeline,” is an automated system that uses robotics and a customized operating system to give kitchens a reliable and precise way to make a fulfill order. The hallmark is it assembles all digital orders under the counter via automated production while allowing staff to assemble in-house orders from the top of the counter.
Niccol said the system can fit into existing locations. It’s basically, pull off the current line, put in the new one. Likely, it will arrive in new builds for Chipotle since it’s easier to implement, Niccol said, but the brand is designing the technology (one of the benefits behind investing in it) so that it will work within current stores as well. “So, all these things are driving toward hopefully better guest experiences, but also a better work environment for employees,” Niccol said. “And then, obviously with that, I think we will be more efficient in both cases.”
“… And then we've got some other exciting initiatives on making our prep easier, right, frying chips or cutting and cleaning avocados,” he continued. “So, we're making a lot of investment and we're going to continue to experiment. Not all of it will work, but I'm confident having innovation in this space is a big unlock for our brand in the long run.”
Project Square One’s compass was visible in Chipotle’s recent menu innovation, too. TikTok customers asked Chipotle for fajita veggies and Chipotle’s honey vinaigrette as options for the digital-exclusive Veggie Quesadilla. So, it worked with two TikTok food reviewers who made the idea go viral at the start of the year and then leveraged its strength in digital marketing to bring it all together. Importantly, though, Chipotle did so without adding any ingredients.
During launch, Chipotle nearly doubled its quesadilla business and produced two of its top digital sales day ever, Niccol said. The brand elected to make it a permanent menu item.
Chipotle also introduced Chicken Al Pastor in May as a systemwide LTO. It marked the first time the brand launched a new menu innovation globally as it rolled across Canada and Europe as well. Likewise to the TikTok reaction, the product was designed to be operationally simple—it takes Chipotle’s existing adobo chicken, cooks it on the plancha, and then mixes in an al pastor marinade. “The fajita quesadilla program was received really well. The chicken al pastor program was received really well. But I know they wouldn't be as powerful if we didn't have Project Square One driving behind it,” Niccol said. “So I think we've talked about this a lot—one of the things that makes Chipotle really special is its operational ability to achieve tremendous throughput with unbelievable culinary and unbelievable customization. We’ve got to nail that. And we have to nail it both on the front line and in the digital experience.”