Chipotle Mexican Grill has launched a pilot project that monitors the flow of RFID-tagged ingredient containers destined for its Chicago-area restaurants to improve visibility, operational efficiency and food safety.
April 18, 2022Chipotle Mexican Grill is piloting a radio-frequency identification solution to help the company track ingredients moving through its distribution center and to approximately 200 restaurants in the Chicago area. By attaching UHF RFID tags to cases of ingredients and reading those tags via handheld readers as they are received, the restaurant is able to capture and manage data regarding supplies, as well as ensure food safety and operational efficiency at each site.
Chipotle is one of the first major restaurant companies to test RFID technology to improve traceability and food safety, according to technology vendors. The fast casual restaurant chain operates in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and France, totaling approximately 3,000 restaurants. It specializes in tacos, salads, bowls and burritos, made to order in front of the customer. Chipotle therefore places great importance on the fresh ingredients that are used in its products.
The goal, according to Chipotle, was to test a technology-based system to track fresh ingredients, and the company chose to begin testing RFID in 2020. food products received by restaurants,” said Thomas Burke, Chipotle’s FSQA traceability manager.
During the pilot project, the company applied passive UHF RFID tags, supplied by Avery Dennison Smartrac, to crates of ingredients used to prepare Chipotle food offerings. Crates filled with meat and dairy products, as well as avocados, are labeled by five of Chipotle’s suppliers for the pilot project. Each label is coded with a unique identification number which is linked in the back-end software to the product data in the checkout.
Once goods are received at one of the Chicago-area restaurants, employees use their handheld RFID readers to confirm what was received and when, and the software updates the item’s status. This information helps the restaurant, as well as company management, ensure inventory is available at each location and determine the freshness of each product.
Supply chain visibility
In the long term, Burke says, such a system could provide a complete history of goods as they move through the supply chain. “By having a globally unique identity for each case being received by restaurants,” he explains, “we can build systems around when products are first received.” Digitally recording the history of each product along the supply chain, as well as its use in the restaurant, could then provide data for real-time, as well as historical or analytical purposes.
According to Burke, the technology “creates an avenue for continuous monitoring of product location in Chipotle restaurants.” While the technology pilot began on March 28, the company intends to evaluate the results as it happens, before determining whether to roll it out nationwide.
During the pilot, Chipotle is working with RFID software company Avery Dennison Mojixwhile Zebra Technologies. Zebra provides handheld RFID readers, while Mojix provides its ytem software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution to manage read data and integrate with Chipotle’s existing in-house software. Mojix also provided the front-end application layer that handles store-level activities.
In addition to leveraging external RFID software, Burke explains, Chipotle does some internal data management. “Reporting and validating data is part of the activities that Chipotle handles internally,” he says.
Reduce labor and increase food security
If the pilot goes as planned, Burke says, “We anticipate the program will result in improved product information data fidelity for inventory, food safety and supply chain use cases. ‘supply.” Beyond that, he hopes to find out if the system saves time for staff members who previously had to manually record information about products received. In this way, he says, “the pilot program will also shine a light on labor savings.” Additionally, he adds, “Chipotle views ingredient serialization with RFID tags as a tool to reduce restaurant friction and improve our employee experience.”
Company restaurant operations staff and help desks can use technology to access real-time inventory data, potentially mitigating human error. “Accurately managing expiration dates means better food safety,” says an anonymous Mojix spokesperson, “but also less food waste, [which is] good for both the environment and the bottom line.”
Key points to remember:
- Chipotle is leading restaurant chains’ efforts to improve efficiency and food safety through RFID, while reducing waste.
- The pilot project currently underway will test whether the technology can ensure that fresh produce is used while it is fresh, and whether inventory can be managed automatically, saving labor and reducing errors.