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Inside Chipotle’s first Digital Kitchen

The new unit format is designed for delivery and takeout—but don’t call it a ghost kitchen, the chain’s global development chief said.
Photo courtesy of Chipotle

On paper, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s new Digital Kitchen sure sounds a lot like the ghost kitchens being debuted by just about every operator around the country.

The space, which is about half the size of a typical Chipotle unit, is used solely for delivery and pickup orders; there’s no dine-in seating or customer-facing makeline.

But Chipotle, known in recent years for its tech innovation, is putting its own spin on the off-premise kitchen.

“I wouldn’t call our Digital Kitchen a ghost kitchen at all,” Chipotle Global Chief Development Officer Tabassum Zalotrawala told Restaurant Business. “Our Digital Kitchen is open to customers. You can walk into this restaurant.”

What’s more, if a customer hasn’t ordered through Chipotle’s app or website, they can scan a code in the Digital Kitchen unit and place an order onsite, Zalotrawala said.

Plus, she said, “There’s a huge, transparent view into our kitchen and that same sense of smell that you’re used to in a regular Chipotle. A ghost kitchen or dark kitchen is only open for delivery drivers and not customers.”

Chipotle’s first Digital Kitchen is slated to open Saturday in Highland Falls, N.Y. It’s about 3,000 square feet (“larger than it needs to be,” Zalotrawala said) because the chain opted to take over an existing building.

Future Digital Kitchens will be closer to 1,200- to 1,500-square-feet, she said. Chipotle intends to open “at least a few, a handful” of Digital Kitchens next year and into 2022, she said, in “proven markets” where the fast-casual chain already has a large number of successful restaurants.

All Digital Kitchens will include parking, as well as two entrances—one for customers and another for delivery drivers picking up larger catering orders, she said.

“The Digital Kitchen has been an integral part of our innovation pipeline for 18 months,” she said. “It comes from this thought of, How do we group our brand and make it more convenient and access customers in all trade areas? How do we build restaurants so they’re the right type of restaurant for the right trade area?”

Chipotle’s Digital Kitchens will cost significantly less to build and to staff than a traditional restaurant, she said.

The Digital Kitchen is one of multiple new formats the Newport Beach, Calif.-based chain is exploring.

In addition to building on its successful order-ahead Chipotlane platform, the company is testing three or four walk-up windows, with several more in the pipeline, Zalotrawala said.

“They work great in urban areas where you don’t have the real estate to add an actual vehicular lane,” she said. “I call them ‘Chipotlanes for humans.’”

Several years ago, Chipotle began adding digital makelines in its stores to handle the influx of off-premise orders. In July, the chain reported its digital makelines were generating $1 million in sales per unit annually, sometimes more.

Chipotle piloted its digital makeline 2.0 earlier this month, Zalotrawala said. The new makelines “completely mirror” the front service line, with larger pans of ingredients for easier preparation of bowls and burritos. The new design is being rolled out systemwide in new stores and will be added as older units are remodeled, she said.

“The technology is very much the same, but it is new in that it is longer than our first version of the digital makeline,” she said. “The end goal is absolutely to improve throughput and efficiency and support the growing digital business.”

Listen to an interview about Chipotle's new formats and its tech innovation with Vice President of Digital Strategy and and Product Nicole West on Nov. 24, part of Winsight's virtual FSTEC conference. 

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