As sales continue to recover, restaurants are hurrying to bolster their employee-value proposition in anticipation of what promises to be a hiring rush. And a challenging one at that. Joblist reported nearly 30 percent of hospitality workers are considering bolting for other sectors after spending months unemployed or mired in uncertainty.

So strengthening incentives, in addition to pay perhaps, is going to be a frequent theme in the coming months. Chipotle Thursday announced its latest push, building on one of its biggest perks from 2019.

The fast casual said it will now offer debt-free degrees in Agriculture, Culinary, and Hospitality to all eligible employees through a partnership with Guild Education.

After 120 days of employment, workers can pursue degrees from a host of options: The University of Arizona, Bellevue University, Brandman University, Paul Quinn College, Southern New Hampshire University, Wilmington University, the University of Denver, and soon, Johnson & Wales University and Oregon State University.

Breaking it down, Chipotle’s agriculture offers will start April 13. Employees can seek a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Sciences or Rangeland Sciences online from Oregon State University.

Chipotle’s commitment to agriculture isn’t new. It previously promised $5 million over five years to remove barriers and enable “the next generation of farmers and ranchers.” Last year, Chipotle spent more than $300 million in food premiums to purchase supplies responsibly sourced, humanly raised, and often locally grown.

This past June, Chipotle launched a Virtual Farmers’ Market, powered by Shopify. It allowed farmers in Chipotle’s supply chain to introduce versions of their own eCommerce websites. Essentially, through individualized online marketplaces, Chipotle suppliers could sell meat, dairy and grain products, and other items directly to consumers.

For the brand’s part, it assisted in the development of each supplier’s site and covered hosting fees on Shopify for two years. Additionally, it supported design and development of the virtual storefronts.

Customers could go to and buy direct from vendors like Niman Ranch, Petaluma Creamery, and Meister Cheese.

At that point, Chipotle and the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation contributed more than $500,000 to support the “next generation of farmers” through the National Young Farmers Coalition. Fifty diverse young farmers were awarded $5,000 grants to begin or grow their business, 78 percent of represented minorities in the industry. Chipotle and Chipotle Cultivate Foundation also helped growth stage ventures across the country to advance innovative solutions in farming through an accelerator program, Chipotle Aluminaries Project 2.0.

This latter initiative accepted applicants, who then received support and mentorship from industry leaders, like Seth Goldman of Honest Tea.

Culinary and hospitality

Chipotle is set to become the first of Guild’s employer partners to offer debt-free culinary education through Johnson & Wales University. It’s expected to launch later this year. Chipotle said it will work with JWU and Guild to bring associate and bachelors’ culinary arts degrees online, as well as an additional Bachelor of Science degree in Food Industry Compliance Management.

The Associate degree in Culinary Arts includes an experiential education component. Lastly, Chipotle employees will have the chance to pursue a selection of bachelor’s degree programs in hospitality from Bellevue University, JWU, or Oregon State University.

Supply chain

Also arriving later in 2021, Chipotle will offer an expanded selection of supply chain programs from Oregon State University and the University of Denver. It currently offers similar degrees from Bellevue University, Brandman University, and Southern New Hampshire University. 

“Diversifying our debt-free degree program with new majors and partner universities makes our educational benefits even more inclusive,” Marissa Andrada, chief diversity, inclusion and people officer at Chipotle, said in a statement. “Through our partnership with Guild, we are committed to accelerating our employees’ professional growth and helping them achieve personal success by offering opportunities to pursue career paths in their particular area of interest.”

Chipotle first unveiled its debt-free degree opportunity in October 2019. At the time, it said it would cover 100 percent of tuition costs up front for 75 different types of business and technology degrees via partner Guild Education. Thursday’s news represents a wide expansion of the program.

The company already boasts a tuition reimbursement program where workers can be reimbursed up to $5,250 a year at the school of their choice.

Speaking of that, Chipotle said Thursday its seen significant impact from its culinary benefits.

To date, Chipotle reported a retention rate 3.5 times higher among students who are enrolled in Cultivate Education.

Crew members using the benefit are 7.5 times more likely to move into a management role within the organization.

Of those using the benefit, 85 percent of students are crew members, and the benefit has the biggest impact on their growth and tenure.

“Chipotle’s debt-free degree program expansion highlights its deep commitment to employees’ economic opportunity and professional advancement,” Natalie McCullough, president and chief commercial officer at Guild Education, added in a statement. “By expanding Cultivate Education to include a variety of programs aligned to the company’s mission, Chipotle is continuing to lead as an innovator in employee development and wellness.”

The higher education expansion builds on Chipotle’s industry-first crew bonus program, which enables employees the chance to earn an extra month’s worth of pay each year for meeting certain criteria. Qualifying crew members can also take advantage of a suite of benefits including access to healthcare; fitness discounts; and free English as a second language and GED classes for employees and family members.

In 2019, turnover at the GM level improved 15.1 percent year-over-year at Chipotle as it closed the calendar at 32.9 percent.

Employee Management, Fast Casual, Story, Chipotle