Chipotle creates a $50 million fund to invest in early-stage tech companies

Photo courtesy Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle Mexican Grill on Tuesday announced the creation of a $50 million fund to invest in early-stage technology companies to help its customers and employees.

The new venture fund, dubbed Cultivate Next, will be financed by Chipotle and seeks to give a boost to “seed to Series B stage companies,” the fast-casual burrito chain said.

“We are exploring investments in emerging innovation that will enhance our employee and guest experience, and quite possibly revolutionize the restaurant industry,” Chipotle Chief Technology Officer Curt Garner said in a statement. “Investing in forward-thinking ventures that are looking to drive meaningful change at scale will help accelerate Chipotle’s aggressive growth plans.”

Newport Beach, Calif.-based Chipotle has long been a leader in restaurant technology. It became the first major chain to open an order ahead-pickup drive-thru, with the launch of its (now) much-copied Chipotlane in early 2018. Before that, it was one of the first restaurant brands to create a second makeline for digital orders.

More recently, Chipotle began testing Chippy, an artificially intelligent robot, to cook tortilla chips as a potential labor-saving opportunity. Last month, the 3,000-unit chain started testing radio-frequency identification, also known as RFID, to track inventory and trace ingredients through the supply chain. Chipotle is also trying a new scheduling tool that uses machine learning.

The chain uses its stage-gate process to test and evaluate new technologies, in much the same way it decides whether to add new menu items.

Last year, Chipotle invested in a Series C funding round for Nuro, a self-driving robotic delivery company based in Mountain View, Calif. At the time, Chipotle said the Nuro investment was part of the chain’s search for “disruptive opportunities outside of traditional third-party partnerships.”

On Tuesday, Chipotle said it had no updates on that Nuro investment, according to a spokeswoman.

Companies interested in applying for a piece of Chipotle’s Cultivate Next fund can apply by emailing CultivateNext@Chipotle.com.

Restaurants have accelerated their investments in tech suppliers in recent years—with mixed results.

McDonald’s, for example, sold the Dynamic Yield artificial intelligence ordering service to Mastercard just three years after paying $300 million for it. McDonald’s also sold its automated ordering lab to IBM last year.

Yum Brands last year purchased Tictuk Technologies, a digital ordering company, and Kvantum, a marketing enterprise. At the time of purchase, CEO David Gibbs said the investments would help the company navigate the digital shift that came about during the pandemic.

Inspire Brands, the parent of Dunkin’ and Arby’s, took a minority stake last year in ItsaCheckmate, which funnels third-party delivery orders into a restaurant’s POS system.

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