Mushroom meat and robot chefs: Chipotle's vision for the future of fast food

The quick-serve sector is undergoing a massive transformation thanks to new tech and shifting consumer sentiment.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

This past spring, Chipotle announced the launch of a tech-focused venture fund to nurture food and service-oriented technologies. The first round of investments just went out, and the news says a lot about the future of quick service.

Through its Cultivate Next venture fund, Chipotle is backing Hyphen, a food service platform designed to help automate kitchens via robotics, and Meati Foods, a company that makes alternative meat proteins from mushroom root. If you had to lay money on the two dominant trends in fast food for the next several years, you'd do well to pay attention. 

Automation has been making quick progress in the restaurant industry, both in front of and back of house operations. Miso Robotics, a dominant player in cooking robots, has secured valuable partnerships with major chains like White Castle, Jack-in-the-Box, and Chipotle, for whom the company customized a tortilla chip cooking robot. With rising labor costs and increasing acceptance of contactless processes, robots are an obvious choice and development in this area has been intense.

Additionally, many brands have begun resorting to automated interfaces for front-of-house operations, most notably McDonald's via its self-service ordering consoles. Combined with innovations in autonomous delivery, which is nearing broader implementation following several positive test beds nationwide, and you have a pretty good picture of an autonomous future for food service. Based in San Jose, CA, Hyphen is helping drive that transition with its first product, Makeline, an automated system that utilizes advanced robotics and a customized operating system to give kitchens a reliable and precise way to make and fulfill orders. 

"Hyphen is reimagining the intersection between makelines and digital kitchens, with a focus on improving speed and order accuracy," said Curt Garner, Chief Technology Officer at Chipotle. "Their use of robotics to enhance the employee and guest experience to find efficiencies in the restaurant industry aligns with our mission of leveraging emerging technology to increase access to real food."

Meanwhile, broader consumer acceptance of meat alternatives over the past few years following successful brand implementations from the likes of Beyond and Impossible has led to a stampede among restaurants to expand their offerings. In part, consumer sentiment is being informed by the dramatic environmental impact of meat production, demand for which is skyrocketing as markets like India and China grow more affluent.

The mushroom roots used in Meati products are grown indoors year-round in an ultra-clean, pure environment that is unexposed to pollutants, pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones. Meati says its products are created in a way that protects and preserves our planet's water, land, and air.

"With their industry-leading commitments to sustainability and responsibly-raised ingredients, Chipotle is a likeminded leader in the movement to create sustainable food systems," said Tyler Huggins, Co-founder and CEO of Meati Foods. "Breaking ground on the Cultivate Next venture fund is an important signal of Meati's industry leadership potential, and new investments like this will help us scale operations and our mission-driven team."

Plant-powered options have been a priority for Chipotle's ongoing menu innovation over the past few years. The brand launched its Cilantro-Lime Cauliflower Rice in January 2021, which resulted in an incremental sales lift while also attracting new guests.

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