Robots May Be Making Your Tacos in the Near Future—At Least That’s Chipotle’s Plan

What you need to know about Chippy the tortilla-making robot, as well as restaurants run by artificial intelligence

Chipotle is rolling out several technological advances that may show what the future of casual dining looks like.

The most futuristic innovation is Chippy, a tortilla-making robot, now at work in one southern California location, tuned to replicate Chipotle’s tortilla chip recipe. According to Expedite, a newsletter on the future of hospitality, Chippy even replicates the slight, imperfect flavor variations that might occur when an actual human is making them.

At eight other locations in southern California, Expedite reports, Chipotle is testing a kitchen management system that uses artificial intelligence to tell cooks what ingredients to prep and when in real-time, to improve efficiency and have food ready to go.

Plus, in 73 Ohio locations, Chipotle is piloting location-based technology meant to help customers and delivery drivers know when orders are ready, whether they’re at the wrong location, and to scan loyalty QR codes—all through its mobile app.

No word yet on whether this kitchen AI knows Chipotle’s secret menu items, though. But who knows what will happen as time goes on?

a chipotle employee slices limes while Chipotle Ai Kitchen Assistant Chippy makes tortilla chips in the backgroundCourtesy Chipotle

Why Are Restaurants Experimenting With Robots and AI?

Chipotle isn’t the only chain restaurant to experiment with artificial intelligence. McDonald’s experimented with AI drive-thru order-taking last year.

“There are two main reasons: cost and consistency,” said Kristen Hawley, an expert in restaurant technology who publishes Expedite, in an interview.

There’s always pressure on chains like Chipotle to grow, open new locations, and serve more guests, both in-store and via delivery—and that pressure is exacerbated by a nationwide labor shortage.

“Adding technology can keep elements of the kitchen and food prep running smoothly even amid staff shortages or high turnover are a hugely attractive proposition for any corporate office,” said Hawley.

How Do Robots and Artificial Intelligence Help in the Kitchen?

According to Hawley, robotics and AI help restaurants with both safety and food waste. Certain kitchen jobs are associated with high risk.

“Operating the fry station full of hot oil at a White Castle at 3 a.m., for example,” said Hawley. White Castle has deployed robots to help with this, freeing up workers to do other tasks.

Artificial intelligence also helps reduce food waste by constantly analyzing sales and traffic patterns, prompting kitchen staff to prep only necessary ingredients.

“Think of these technologies as humming along in the background, making kitchen workers’ lives easier,” Hawley said.

Will Robots Take Jobs From Human Restaurant Workers?

Though this is a long-term fear (and the stuff of science fiction) in the short-term, human jobs are safe. Right now, chains like Chipotle, McDonald’s, and White Castle are only testing this technology in a limited number of stores. Future robots stealing work from people are still years away from becoming a reality.

“It took Chipotle something like two years to add quesadillas to its menu at all restaurants,” Hawley said. “Robots aren’t going to show up overnight and take over.”

Sources:

Expedite: “Chipotle, the burrito-slinging tech company”

Engadget: “McDonald’s and IBM could bring AI-powered drive-thrus to more restaurants”

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Jason Wilson
Jason Wilson is a Senior Writer at Reader’s Digest. He has covered travel, culture, food, and drinks for more than two decades, and is the author of three books on wine and spirits, including Godforsaken Grapes and Boozehound. He’s written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, and many other publications. He’s had a pizza, a breakfast sandwich, and a dessert named after him in three different countries.