How is Chipotle pivoting for its off-premise push?

With digital orders mounting, the original build-your-own fast-casual chain is working to boost order accuracy with updated operations and equipment.
Photograph courtesy of Chipotle Mexican Grill

For more than a quarter century, Chipotle Mexican Grill has been known as the originator of the assembly line, build-your-own, fast-casual format.

Now, with digital orders totaling more than 18% of all sales for the most recent quarter and digital sales growing 99.1% year over year, Chipotle is having to put in place new systems to ensure that its growing number of off-premise orders make it out the door quickly and accurately.

“We’ve been a consumer-facing brand, where the guest gets to pick every ingredient,” Chipotle Chief Restaurant Officer Scott Boatwright told Restaurant Business. “Accuracy has not been an issue for Chipotle, so we are now having to flex a new muscle and learn new skills as it relates to what is an off-premise business. … That doesn’t come without growing pains.”

Several years ago, Chipotle began installing second makelines in select locations to prepare for off-premise expansion. The expanded prep lines are in about 2,000 restaurants today, Boatwright said, and have been upgraded to “digital makelines” that are designed to boost order accuracy. About 200 Chipotle units, typically those in airports and malls, are too small for the second makeline. And about 300 stores are still slated to have them installed, he said.

Instead of relying on paper order receipts, LCD screens along the digital makeline highlight which ingredients are to be added to each bowl, burrito or taco, and a summary screen allows the expediter to double-check each item that needs to be packaged with the order. Under the old system, order add-ons such as chips, soda or guacamole often got left behind, he said.

Restaurants with the “complete digital ecosystem” are now able to churn out two to three off-premise orders a minute, compared to just one order per minute previously, Boatwright said.

He declined to say how much the digital makelines cost the company to install.

Beyond boosting speed and accuracy, the new systems are amping up employee satisfaction, he said.

“The team members that were working the old, analogue table, it was a frustrating experience,” he said. “Now, I think the employees enjoy the experience. They can move through the work much more quickly and with less friction.”

Chipotle’s digital sales, which are nearing $1 billion, are the fastest-growing segment of the chain’s business. So there’s still room for both growth and operational refinement, Boatwright said.

The chain currently has 17 “Chipotlane” pickup lanes for mobile orders, with plans to add a few dozen more by the end of the year. Those pickup orders are prepared under the same system as other off-premise orders, except that the finished orders are staged near the drive-thru window.

Chipotle is considering testing an accuracy-verified sticker that would seal each delivery bag, Boatwright said. A recent study found that more than a quarter of third-party delivery drivers said they had stolen bites of orders.

“It’s to ensure that everything we’ve committed to is in the bag,” he said. “We’re looking at opportunities there.”


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