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Chipotle Mexican Grill quietly rolls out voice AI to 1,800 units

Fast-casual chain leans into ‘human-backed machine learning’ with phone orders powered by conversational AI

Automated customer service phone systems and chat bots are ubiquitous among pharmacy, utility, retail and e-commerce companies.

Restaurants companies such as Denny’s, Dunkin' and Domino’s Pizza have also deployed bot and voice-enabled ordering.

But chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill, which specializes in customized meals, are turning to more sophisticated versions of voice assistants to process orders.

“It’s human backed machine learning,” said Nicole West, vice president of digital strategy and product at Chipotle.

The Newport Beach, Calif-based fast-casual chain, which is experiencing blockbuster digital sales, quietly began testing AI-powered voice assistants for phone orders in early 2018.

Mobile Pick-Up Shelf.jpgThat 10-unit test grew to 1,800 locations this year. West said the 2,500-unit chain plans to expand the AI voice system to its remaining U.S. stores by the end of the year.

In Orange, Calif., a customer dialing a local store is greeted by a female voice. Chipotle has yet to give her a name, West said. Her responses extend beyond standard dispassionate bot programming. She actively listens and makes suggestions when she thinks a customer might have omitted a topping on a bowl or burrito.

 A sample suggestion: “Would you like to add salsa or sour cream?”

With each transaction, she learns the idiosyncrasies of how people order. She might stumble if someone responds “combo” when requesting a mix of pinto and black beans. But, once she figures it out, her algorithm remembers. 

“The more orders that come through the system, the more she learns,” West said.

This is not a labor reduction move. West said it’s about “convenience for our customers” because the system allows them to order, pay and skip the line when grabbing their food from a pick-up shelf. Pay ahead is not available for manual phone orders. 

Automating phone orders also reduces the amount of time managers and employees spend on the phone, West said.

While it’s too early to reveal impact on sales, West said the brand is seeing a lot of repeat use. “Customers who discover it tend to reuse it and have given us feedback they appreciate the ability to order this way.”  

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @fastfoodmaven

TAGS: Technology
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