Chipotle said it’s committed to “ongoing exploration” for systems to ease pain points experienced by restaurant employees, including its current “Chippy” pilot, announced in March. Chippy, an autonomous kitchen assistant from Miso Robotics—the creators of “Flippy”—makes tortilla chips. It uses AI to replicate Chipotle’s recipe—corn masa flour, water, and sunflower oil—to cook chips, season with salt, and finish with a hint of lime juice
The brand also has a concierge chat bot, “Pepper,” which is live on its app and website and fields questions from guests.
Automation has surged throughout the sector in recent months as labor challenges persist. The industry added 40,800 jobs in June and now employs 11,938,000 workers—a figure that’s climbed 27 percent since June 2020 yet remains roughly 700,000 below per-COVID marks, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Overall employment in “leisure and hospitality,” a category that tacked on 67,000 jobs in June, is down 1.3 million, or 7.8 percent, from February 2020.
For Chipotle, the topic pulsed this week when an Augusta, Maine, location permanently closed Tuesday due to understaffing, the company said. It was also the first store in Chipotle’s 3,000-unit-plus fleet to file for a union.
The brand’s hourly (crew, kitchen manager, service manager) turnover rate hit 194 percent in 2019, up from 141 percent the prior year. Chipotle has raised average hourly wages to $15, added referral bonuses, and spent time refining pathways for advancement in response. Additionally, crew members can now become “restaurateurs,” which is what Chipotle calls its highest GM role, in as little as three and half years. If they get there, earning potential hikes to $100,000.
This past year, 90 percent of restaurant management roles at Chipotle came from internal promotions. On average, six employees were promoted per restaurant for a total of nearly 19,000. Its internal promotion rate was 77 percent for apprentice and GM roles in 2021.
In April, CEO Brian Niccol hinted more automation could be on deck. "Obviously, Chippy is our first attempt,” Niccol said. “And we've worked with a lot of our employees to identify what are the tasks that they would love to see us bring automation to or AI, so that hopefully the role can become less complicated. And then I think there are just other places in the back of the restaurant where we have the ability to automate, whether it's on the digital make-line or other tasks.”
Labor costs last quarter came in at 26.3 percent, roughly 140 basis points higher, year-over-year, mainly due to the brand’s wage hike.
Staffing will remain atop Chipotle’s operational tasks as it tracks toward 7,000 stores, the company said. The figure should sit between 235–250 units this calendar alone.
Niccol in April said Chipotle was currently in the 85–90 percent range of restaurants staffed to model. Pre-COVID, it was closer to 80 percent.
With Meati Foods, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, the mushroom roots are grown indoors year-round in “an ultra-clean, pure environment that is unexposed to pollutants, pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones,” Chipotle said. “Meati's products are created in a way that protects and preserves our planet's water, land, and air.”