Technology

Whataburger opens a digital-only restaurant

The location in Austin, Tex., is cashless and seatless and without a traditional drive-thru. Customers order via mobile app or kiosk.
Whataburger digital kitchen
Whataburger opened a digital-only kitchen in Austin, Tex. this week. | Photo courtesy of Whataburger.

Whataburger’s latest restaurant doesn’t take cash.

The Whataburger Digital Kitchen, which opened in Austin, Tex., this week, is the chain’s first digital-only restaurant, where customers order via the company’s mobile app or through kiosks and get their food through a pick-up lane or a food locker.

The location does not have seats and it doesn’t have a traditional drive-thru, joining the ranks of brands experimenting with locations targeted specifically at the digital consumer. The location has a staff of 50 people, which Whataburger calls “family members.” The location is open 24 hours a day. The mobile pickup lane replaces the drive-thru, and food lockers on the exterior of the building are weather-resistant.

Austin, a technology hub, also made sense for the test. “Our Austin guests were early to embrace other digital innovations, making it a perfect fit for our first Whataburger Digital Kitchen,” CEO Ed Nelson said in a statement.

Restaurants continue to experiment with new prototypes targeting takeout customers, as to-go orders remain dominant in the post-pandemic economy. They are particularly interested in encouraging more digital orders, which are more profitable because they tend to be larger than in-person orders and operators don’t have an employee taking the order.

Such orders also come with more data, and potential tie-ins with companies’ loyalty programs give them the prospect of one-to-one marketing. Chick-fil-A this week, for instance, announced plans to expand its mobile order lanes to some 300 restaurants by the end of this year. Brands are experimenting with digital kitchens, drive-thru-only locations and various takeoffs.

Whataburger is the nation’s fifth-largest burger chain by sales, according to data from Technomic. The San Antonio-based chain, founded in 1950, generates more than $3 billion in annual system sales from its 950 locations.

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