Illustrating the issues of food, technology, and human interaction at Chipotle

Chipotle has clearly staked its place as a progressive fast food restaurant (though they would claim they are between fast food and sit-down restaurants) with no antibiotic meat and organic fillings but it too struggles with some basic issues present in today’s economy: how much should companies rely on human employees versus using cheaper technology?

Like others in similar positions, he’s got a wide palette of gee-whiz technologies at his disposal — tablets for ordering, mobile payment systems, in-store ATM-like machines for ordering that replace cashiers. Yet he eschews most of them. He’s in no rush for tech to dramatically change the Chipotle experience at its more than 1,300 stores worldwide.

He hasn’t found the perfect solution yet. And, besides, he likes the human interaction.

That said, Chipotle, based here, happens to have a wildly popular app, a free tool that shows you where the nearest location is and lets you order and pay on the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Nearly 5 million customers have signed up since 2010 and use the app to go straight to the front of the line to pick up their orders…

But that’s about as far as he wants to go. A future where all orders are made digitally?

“I hope not,” Crumpacker says. “I hope the experience of coming into Chipotle and ordering on the line is substantially superior to ordering on the phone. There’s all this communication as you watch what’s being made.”…

Meanwhile, Crumpacker hopes his next in-store tech play is a mobile payment system so customers can shave a few seconds off the checkout process by paying for menu items on smartphones. He’d like to see a standard on all phones that would support his in-store system…

“Consumers go to restaurants to be served,” she says. “The human element is part of the restaurant experience.”

This is an interesting explanation of the restaurant experience: people like the human element of service (though they are clearly paying for it). I suspect this may not really be the human element that people enjoy about restaurants. How many people really enjoy interacting with the waitstaff and other employees versus the opportunity the setting provides to interact with those at the table and to be part of and observe the social scene taking place around them. This could be a big difference between the Chipotle experience and eating at an urban cafe: Chipotles are often located in suburban settings where one may be able to sit outside or look outside but the primary view is of parking lots and speeding cars. In contrast, a full service restaurant offers more of a scene, particularly if located in a more urban setting where there is a mix of activities. Perhaps we need a sociological experiment to tease this out. Such an experiment could be based on a three by two table: fully mechanical food delivery versus human preparation (Chipotle) versus full service and then placed in a more dull setting versus a more happening location.

The article makes mention of Chipotle’s dropping stock price since mid-summer and I wonder if this is what will ultimately force the chain’s hand: if they need to demonstrate higher earnings and labor costs are too high, technology might be the way to close this gap. Or what might happen if Chipotle employees start demanding higher wages and/or more benefits? At that point, perhaps human interaction simply becomes too expensive, a luxury, as consumers might miss being served but would also not like to pay higher prices.

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