Chipotle launches a tech-focused venture fund

We spoke to Chipotle's CTO to find out why fast food is the new frontier for tech development.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Some of the most interesting tech development is happening in an unusual space: Fast food. From burger-flipping robots to drone delivery and Amazon-level logistics, the face of fast food is changing quickly. 

The latest proof? Chipotle has announced a new venture fund called Cultivate Next, which will make early-stage investments into strategically aligned companies.

Why does a quick-serve chain need a venture fund? I put the question to Chipotle CTO Curt Garner.

"Cultivate Next aims to support seed to Series B stage companies that can accelerate our strategic priorities such as running great restaurants," says Garner, "amplifying technology and innovation, further advancing our Food With Integrity mission, and expanding access and convenience for our consumers."

The subtext is that competition is fierce in fast food, and it pays to be in on the ground floor of technological innovation -- a lesson the sector might well have gleaned from Amazon's ambitious takeover of Kiva Robotics, which was a big key in unlocking Amazon's logistical competitive advantage.

"Cultivate Next allows us to meet consumer and employee preferences that have evolved over the last two years," says Garner. "We have an aggressive goal of achieving 7,000 restaurants, and technology is the key to accelerating these growth plans."

Also: Are ghost kitchens here to stay?

Chipotle is already making headway, teaming up with companies like Miso Robotics on a tortilla chip-making robot, which Chipotle is piloting at select locations. The chain is also testing RFID technology for backend management, which is critical to maintaining quality in a high throughput kitchen. 

"Chipotle is testing radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to enhance its traceability program and inventory management systems," says Garner. "Ingredients arrive at Chipotle restaurants affixed with RFID enabled case labels and are scanned by RFID readers. Our RFID program is designed to allow the company to act on food safety and quality concerns swiftly, efficiently, and precisely."

The new venture fund will have an initial size of $50 million and will be financed solely by Chipotle. As funds go, it's not the biggest, but this is surely a sign of growing competition and white-hot development in an industry largely aided by pandemic-influenced consumer trends but also reeling from an extremely competitive labor market and rising wages. In that regard, it's a bellwether and sign of lively development in fast food tech.

"We are looking to support a wide range of forward-thinking ventures, including those focused on farming, supply chain, employee experience, and advanced robotics."

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