Restaurant Chain Tracks Food Ingredients with RFID

Chipotle Mexican Grill has launched a pilot that monitors the flow of RFID-tagged containers of ingredients destined for its Chicago-area restaurants, in order to improve visibility, operational efficiency and food safety.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is piloting a radio frequency identification solution intended to help the company trace ingredients that move through its distribution center and to approximately 200 Chicago-area restaurants. By attaching UHF RFID tags to cases of ingredients, and by 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 large restaurant companies to test RFID technology to improve traceability and food safety, according to the technology providers. The chain of fast casual restaurants operates in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and France, totaling about 3,000 restaurants. It specializes in tacos, salads, bowls and burritos, made to order in front of the customer. Chipotle thus places a premium on fresh ingredients that are used in its products.

Chipotle uses RFID

Chipotle is testing radio frequency identification technology to enhance its traceability and inventory systems.

The objective, according to Chipotle, was to test a technology-based system for tracking fresh ingredients, and the company opted to begin testing RFID in 2020. “RFID technology is an optimal way of conveying serialization of food products received by restaurants,” he says. Thomas Burke, Chipotle’s FSQA traceability manager.

During the pilot, the company has 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 being tagged by five of Chipotle’s suppliers for the pilot. Each tag is encoded with a unique ID number that is linked in the back-end software with data regarding the product in the crate.

Once goods are received at one of the Chicago-area restaurants, employees use their handheld RFID readers to confirm what has been received and when, and the software updates the item’s status. This information helps the restaurant, as well as corporate management, ensure what inventory is on hand at each site and determine the freshness of each product.

Supply Chain Visibility

In the long run, Burke says, such a system could provide a full history of goods as they move through the supply chain. “Through having a globally unique identity to each case, being received by restaurants,” he explains, “we can build systems around when products are first received.” The digital record of each product’s history throughout the supply chain, as well as its use at the restaurant, could then provide data for real-time purposes, along with historical or analytical purposes.

Thomas Burke

Thomas Burke

According to Burke, the technology “creates an avenue for continuous monitoring of product location within Chipotle restaurants.” While the technology pilot began on March 28, the company intends to assess the results as it proceeds, before determining whether to roll it out nationally.

During the pilot, Chipotle is working with Avery Dennison, RFID software company Mojix, while Zebra Technologies. Zebra is providing handheld RFID readers, while Mojix is ​​supplying its ytem software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution to manage read data and integrate with Chipotle’s existing internal software. Mojix has also provided the front-end application layer that manages store-level activities.

In addition to leveraging the external RFID software, Burke says, Chipotle performs some internal data management. “Developing reports and validating data are some activities Chipotle handles in-house,” he states.

Reducing Labor and Increasing Food Safety

If the pilot goes as planned, Burke says, “We anticipate the program will result in better data fidelity on product information for inventory, food safety and supply chain use cases.” Beyond that, he expects to determine whether the system saves time on the part of staff members who previously had to manually record information about products being received. In this way, he says, “The pilot program will illuminate labor savings as well.” Additionally, he adds, “Chipotle sees serialization of ingredients with RFID tags as a tool to reduce friction in restaurants and enhance our employee experience.”

Operations personnel and corporate restaurant support centers can employ the technology to access inventory data in real time, which could mitigate human error. “Managing expiration dates accurately means better food safety,” says an unnamed Mojix spokesperson, “but also less food waste,” [which is] good both for the environment and for the company’s bottom line. “

Key Takeaways:

  • Chipotle is leading the effort by restaurant chains to improve efficiency and food safety via RFID, while also reducing waste.
  • The pilot now underway will test whether the technology can ensure fresh products are used while they are fresh, and whether inventory can be automatically managed, thereby saving labor and reducing errors.

Exhibitors at RFID Journal LIVE! 2022 will offer tagging and tracking solutions for restaurants. To learn more, visit the event’s website.

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