Jun 30, 2014 · 4 minutes

Chipotle may post $3.2 billion in sales annually across 1,600 locations, but despite its size, the restaurant behaves like a classic startup in so many ways (well, except for the exorbitant amount it pays its executives, but that's for another article). The company is laser-focused on doing what it's good at and little else, having added only one major new ingredient in all the years it's been operating. It was able to quickly carve out a space in the fast food market not by offering the same cheap, low-quality, unsustainably-sourced food of its competitors, but by creating a product that, love it or hate it, is made from fresh, more responsibly-sourced ingredients. And you know something wears the badge of a true "disruptor" when people start calling other entrants "The [insert company name] of X" -- just like there are million Ubers of this or that, everyone's trying to build "The Chipotle of pizza" or "The Chipotle of sushi."

So it's little wonder that Chipotle called upon the New York tech scene to help them build a better burrito-eating experience. At the Hack//Dining NYC hackathon over the weekend, Chipotle was among four companies that challenged developers to solve a problem facing the food industry. Three groups chose to take on Chipotle's pleas to improve the customer experience for "Quick Service Restaurants" -- or what everyone else outside the industry calls "fast food."

So what did the winning team cook up? They created an app called Just Right that solved perhaps the biggest problem facing Chipotle and its patrons: Most people can't (or shouldn't) finish those enormous ingredient-stuffed flour knapsacks, resulting in wasted food and upset stomachs.

Alice Yen, a management consultant who helped mastermind Just Right, told the audience that after surveying Chipotle eaters her team found that 57 percent of them don't finish their burritos. She calls the phenomenon "Burrito Creep." That results in a lot of wasted food, a reality that doesn't exactly jibe with Chipotle's mission of sustainability. To address this, her team built a user interface allowing customers to specify how much or little of each ingredient they want prior to ordering.

That alone isn't terribly impressive, but the key element of Just Right is its clever rewards system. The more customers slim down their burritos the more points, or "peppers," they earn. After earning X number of peppers, they get a free burrito. Meanwhile, in theory at least, Chipotle can save money by using the data to better predict the ingredient supply it needs to feed its customers' actual appetites, not their delusions of hunger.

Although Just Right took home the prize (which amounted to a handful of Jawbone Up bracelets, beer and wine kits, and a tour with some vaguely-titled Chipotle executive), the judges raised some concerns about the app. Wylie Dufresne, the chef and owner of the Manhattan restaurants wd~50 and Alder, said that the modest benefits the app offers to customers and Chipotle at large don't justify the fact that it would make life miserable for the employees. Holding up his hands to mimic the sliding scale of Just Right's interface, he asks, "How do we agree that 'this much meat' translates into two scoops, one scoop?" Yen argues this is the precise problem they are trying to solve, but I tend to agree with Dufrense on this point. Once you add a layer of technology to what was once an informal agreement ("Hey, can I get a little more rice, bro?"), people's expectations for personalization go through the roof.

Meanwhile, Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and CEO of the International Culinary Center, questioned the economics of the move, saying it was the opposite of "upsizing," the strategy of offering more food for only a little more money which has become wildly successful in the fast food industry. For my part, however, that's what I like about it. Again, Chipotle has always been about bucking convention. And furthermore, part of why upsizing is so successful for chains like McDonald's is that the ingredients themselves are dirt cheap. That's not the case with Chipotle.

I did have one lingering concern: For customers like me, the absurd size of the burrito, the careful strategizing needed to keep such a monstrosity intact, and the inevitable food coma that follows is all part of the ritualistic, psychological appeal of Chipotle. For me, this is comfort food, a sort of monthly Mexican Thanksgiving. I asked Yen about this after the presentation and she said that while plenty of Chipotle customers are repulsive gluttons like me (I'm paraphrasing), she said that in surveying customers, even many of the people who regularly finish their burritos end up wishing they hadn't. "They didn't feel good after it," Yen said. "They don't want all the excess food and don't like that part of the experience."

The other entrants ranged from smart thermostat systems for restaurants to "Yelp for dining halls." Not all of the competitors were inspiring. But many of the app ideas, particularly the ones that sought to reduce food borne illness or to improve accountability surrounding health inspections, sounded truly useful to restauranteurs and their guests. The event served as a fascinating look into an area of food tech that's not normally discussed. Usually when we think of "food startups," a space where venture funding has reached a 5-year high, we think of meal kit companies like Plated and Blue Apron, or on-demand meal delivery startups like Munchery and SpoonRocket. The developers at this hackathon, however, weren't trying to "disrupt" the food industry by raising a bunch of venture capital, opening what's essentially an overpriced restaurant with fewer options, and then calling it a startup. Instead, they used their skills as programmers and data-heads to make life easier for the customers and employees of existing restaurants, which are being run by people who already understand the business and bureaucracy of fine dining, and who already know how to make kick-ass food.

 [photo by animakitty]