The issue of labour shortages in the foodservice industry, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, is not likely to be resolved any time soon, and this is leading to a surge of investments in digitalisation. While such technology has been met with some caution around the future of the industry’s workforce, Chipotle’s ongoing digital transformation is proving that automation in the industry is a positive for workers, as well as businesses.
Like most foodservice operators, Chipotle claims to have experienced high turnovers of staff in 2021, yet 90% of promotions were internal last year, with an average of six employees promoted per restaurant. This is down to an environment that allows for greater professional development, thanks to the company’s investment in a more automated workplace such as the recent announcement of its artificial intelligence (AI) kitchen assistant “Chippy”. In the Chief Technology Officer’s words, the company’s “goal is to drive efficiencies through collaborative robotics that will enable Chipotle’s crew members to focus on other tasks in the restaurant”.
While some consumers may be reluctant to use hyper-digitalised businesses, acceptance is increasing. GlobalData’s consumer survey shows that from Q1 2021 to Q1 2022 the number of consumers who are influenced by digitally advanced or “smart” a product or service is when making purchases rose from 66% to 71%.* GlobalData’s TrendSights Analysis 2021: Digitalization report highlights that this acceptance of and engagement with digitalization is generally greater when it caters to other consumer needs and trends such as convenience, ethics, and personalization.
Chipotle’s well-publicized “Chipotlanes” (drive-through outlets) and digital kitchens are all contributing to a more efficient customer experience, but the brand’s digital strategy is able to see beyond just providing an ultra-convenient service. One reason consumers object to automation and other technologies is that they feel it is creating unemployment across industries, including foodservice. However, through effective marketing Chipotle has suggested the opposite; the technology is helping employees to advance their careers. Companies that take a proactive approach to their worker’s professional development will see favour with the 54% of ethically minded consumers globally who say they are loyal to brands that support social or human rights matters.** At a time when much of the foodservice industry is under scrutiny for the mistreatment of its workforce, Chipotle is showing that automation can be a force for good.
Although increased automation in various forms is becoming a reality across many foodservice brands, Chipotle has also been able to pick up on another common objection from customers – that they seek the “human” element of a product or service. The company’s Vice-President of Culinary, Nevielle J Panthaky, explained how its new AI kitchen assistant “Chippy” would recreate this factor. Panthaky stated that: “To ensure we didn’t lose the humanity behind our culinary experience, we trained Chippy extensively to ensure the output mirrored our current product, delivering some subtle variations in flavour that our guests expect.” This is important as many consumers value the personal feel and authenticity of hand-cooked food. Ambience or experience was the second most influential factor globally in deciding which foodservice restaurant to visit in Q4 of 2021. Therefore, public-facing brands such as Chipotle must be careful that the nuances of having human staff (front and back of house) on the overall customer experience is not lost when automating parts of the business.
* GlobalData’s 2021 Q1 and 2022 Q1 global consumer survey, “Always”, “Often”, “Somewhat” responses combined.
** GlobalData’s 2021 Q3 global consumer survey, “Completely agree” and “Somewhat agree responses combined.