Chipotle’s New Robots Rekindle Controversy


Chipotle has been a leader in bringing robots into fast food. Chippy makes chips, Autocado whips up guacamole, and now the new Makeline puts together the ingredients for salads and bowls — 65% of the orders at the average Chipotle restaurant.

Human beings will roll the mixtures into burritos, put lids on the bowls, and pack up the curbside orders. They’ll also continue to serve walk-in customers, who value the attention from fellow humans. Customers like to be able to ask for a little more of this and a little less of that, and they appreciate watching their food assembled by people.

But the Makeline can do most of the work in the back kitchen where orders are assembled for pickup. This means that one restaurant can handle all the walk-in customers and all the remote orders at the same time, increasing productivity and revenue without the need for more staff.

Good for people?

A statement from Chipotle lays out the internal narrative: “Chipotle’s new digital makeline built by Hyphen embodies our commitment to leveraging robotics to unlock the human potential of our workforce, ensuring an elevated dining experience for our guests.”

Chipotle is not replacing human workers with robots. They’re unlocking the human potential of their workforce. Who could object to that?

Hospitality unions may object. The Washington Post quotes reps from two such unions, both expressing concern.

“If we’re not organized, it’s easy for owners to use automation to undercut our work and lay people off,” one said.

Another, who represents a union which has authorized a strike in Las Vegas, says that workers have been promised advance notice of new technology and severance packages for any workers who are replaced by automation.

Automation is intended to take over the dull, dirty, and dangerous aspects of work, allowing human beings to do things that require actual human skills.  It sounds as though Chipotle is following that plan.

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