Chipotle cracks the drive-thru code

The chain is planning to add its mobile-order drive-thru “Chipotlane” to more restaurants as it seeks to further its digital presence.
Photograph courtesy of Chipotle Mexican Grill

Count on Chipotle Mexican Grill for putting a modern twist on an old idea in the restaurant space.

The Newport Beach, Calif.-based Mexican chain, which had long portrayed itself as a different form of fast food, is expanding its use of an idea that very much epitomizes fast food: The drive thru.

The Chipotlane, as the company calls it, is in 10 locations, with plans to expand that number to “a few dozen” by the end of this year.

But Chipotle’s version of the drive-thru is naturally very different from the pickup windows popularized at places like McDonald’s or Wendy’s. Gone are the speakers and brightly-lit menu boards and long lines of idling cars.

In fact, you can’t use one unless you first ordered on the app or website and scheduled a pickup time—essentially scheduling a Chipotle appointment. CEO Brian Niccol said it’s possibly the “fastest way to get Chipotle.”

“It’s one way we increase access and become more convenient,” Tabassum Zalotrawala, Chipotle’s chief development officer, said in an interview with Restaurant Business. “Why do people choose to go through a drive-thru? They value speed. I believe that the Chipotlane leverages the use of digital technology. You can still customize your meal. So you don’t lose the essence of what Chipotle stands for.”

Fast-casual chains emerged and grew over the past 15 years by focusing on quality and experience. While the chains did not have wait staff, they also eschewed some of the elements that made fast food fast food—especially the drive-thru. It’s also easier to find locations when you don’t have to worry about space for a window and easy traffic access.

Yet consumers are increasingly demanding their food to go, making convenience paramount to a limited-service chain’s success. And for all of the efforts behind mobile ordering and delivery, drive-thru windows remain the most tried-and-true method for providing U.S. consumers with the convenience they demand—chains like McDonald’s get as much as 70% of their orders through those windows.

Fast-casual chains have gradually shifted in that direction as pressure builds on the sector to generate sales growth. Panera Bread has generated sales growth through its windows, for instance, and the fast-casual burger chain Smashburger has opened drive-thrus.

Chipotle, which recently opened its 2,500th location, has never needed a drive-thru because for years it generated industry-leading economics. And like many fast-casual chains, the company felt that its in-store experience was an important element in its brand experience—it’s much harder to customize a burrito from a car in a lane.

But the chain has warmed to the idea in recent years as it has sought to recover lost sales from its 2015 food-safety crisis. The company began testing its first drive-thru window last January.

The company also gave it a very Chipotle-like twist, tying the window to its digital ordering.

“It may seem like a drive-thru,” Zalotrawala said. “But I believe strongly that our version of the drive-thru allows us to keep the brand ethos. You will not see a drive-thru menu board. You will not see a formulaic menu that people get to pick from.”

Instead, they customize their order on the company’s mobile app or online order and then schedule a time to pick that order up through the window. That way they can skip the line that often snakes through the inside a Chipotle location.

“It’s a way to customize your meal and you never have to get out of the car,” Zalotrawala said. “It delivers well on the promise of speed and accuracy.”

It also adds to Chipotle’s digital strategy, which has picked up speed in the months since Niccol was named CEO. Digital sales rose by two-thirds in the fourth quarter and same-store sales increased 6.1%, with traffic up 2%.

Niccol has made increasing access to Chipotle a central tenet of the company’s sales-growth strategy—even if it means putting a new twist on an old idea.

“It’s absolutely imperative to proactively respond to what consumers are asking for,” Zalotrawala said. “Consumers’ lifestyles are changing so rapidly. It’s important for us. But we have to do it in a way that we keep our brand ethos.”

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