Operations

Inside Chick-fil-A's first all-digital restaurant

The mobile pickup and delivery unit opened in New York City with no seating and no kiosks—but no lack of hospitality.
Chick-fil-A digital unit
Chick-fil-A is piloting its first all-digital restaurant in a residential New York City neighborhood. A drive-thru model is also in the works. | All photos courtesy of Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A opened its first mobile pickup restaurant in New York City recently, a digitally focused unit with no seating, no ordering kiosks and no front-of-house staff.

The urban prototype, which debuted in March, is geared to busy New Yorkers seeking speed and convenience. Digital orders make up more than half of sales in some markets, and New York City’s use of mobile exceeds that number, according to Chick-fil-A.

But the Atlanta-based chicken chain is also known for its customer service. How does the brand deliver hospitality without front-of-house staff, order takers or a place to sit? We took a look inside this Chick-fil-A pilot concept to see how it all works.

The layout and locale

The restaurant is located in a residential Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, where foot traffic is the major mode of transportation. Owner-Operator Jared Caldwell knows the customer base and area; he also operates a Chick-fil-A several blocks north.

“When I opened my first restaurant in 2019, it was mostly dine-in,” said Caldwell. “But then Covid happened, and we morphed into delivery and takeout. Customers were ordering ahead, delivery drivers were coming in and it became a different business.”

He and the Chick-fil-A team took learnings from that experience and applied them to the new location. In addition, Caldwell previously worked in the tech startup world, so he wasn’t hesitant about embracing a digital model.

Streamlining the ordering and pickup process was a priority from the start. In this new model, guests place their order and pay through the Chick-fil-A app or online, opting to pick it up in the store or have it delivered. In New York City, third-party delivery partners typically arrive by foot or by bike.

store layout

Deliveries are on the left, guest pickup orders on the right, eliminating overcrowding during busy times. 

When a guest or delivery person is on their way, the kitchen is alerted by geofencing to expedite the order and time it for pickup. Location services must be enabled in the app for geofencing to work, but the technology can track someone within a radius of a few blocks and a few minutes away. That way, the food is fresh and hot upon arrival.

The restaurant is divided into two halves, with deliveries directed to the left of the entrance and customers picking up orders directed to the right. The separate “paths” solve the logjam of guests and delivery people crowding the counter or entrance during busy times. Active status board screens above each side indicate when orders are ready in real time to speed the process.

The kitchen and back-of-house area is similar in look and operation to other Chick-fil-A restaurants, although the footprint is on the smaller side.

screens

Active screens indicate when an order is ready in real time. Right below is a QR code for walk-ins who didn't order ahead. 

Hospitality in a high-tech setting

Chick-fil-A adds a bit of high-touch to this high-tech experience through its back-of-house team members. When guests go to the counter to pick up their food, kitchen workers greet them and engage with them. And if a passerby comes in off the street and wants to place an order, there’s a QR code in store that takes them online.

When I visited, one happy customer (who actually ordered via QR code and had to wait a bit) told the team member that the experience was a “10 out of 10.”

“Customers love telling us how they feel,” said Caldwell. In the short time that the digital location has been open, surveys show that guests are giving the digital model high marks for customer service and hospitality.

“We’re measuring data and giving customers what they want,” said Caldwell. “Part of it is learning for the brand.”

Indeed, this is the first of two digital-focused restaurants Chick-fil-A is testing. The second will be an elevated drive-thru concept opening later this year. It will use similar technology but won’t be in an urban location.

“At Chick-fil-A we are always looking for ways to innovate and enhance the guest experience,” Nathaniel Cates, Sr., principal design lead for Chick-fil-A, Inc., said in a statement released in March. “While digital concepts are becoming more prevalent, it’s important that we evolve in a uniquely Chick-fil-A way—meeting the changing needs of our customers without compromising the signature service and care they’ve grown to know and love.”

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