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Chipotle Makes it Clear: The Future of Restaurants is Digital

The new Tony Hawk Burrito, available on the Chipotle app. Image: Chipotle Mexican Grill

After navigating a number of high-profile stumbles and scandals in recent years, Chipotle Mexican Grill has achieved great success in 2020 despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

For the past three years, the team in charge of developing the fast-casual chain’s digital tools and strategy has been laser-focused on delivering a personalized, convenient, and frictionless experience.

Earlier today, Nancy Luna, senior editor for Nation’s Restaurant News, hosted Nicole West, vice president of digital strategy and product management for Chipotle. The two discussed the company’s digital strategy during a Restaurants Rise webinar titled “The Future of Restaurant Technology,” sponsored by Uptown Network.

Chipotle saw an increase in digital sales of 216 percent last quarter. That’s a seismic shift in growth and perception when one considers that the brand was embroiled in food safety scandals not long ago. It was reported in April of this year that Chipotle had agreed to pay a $25 million federal fine related to foodborne illness outbreaks.

But their troubles seem to be behind them. A significant factor—arguably the most important factor—of Chipotle’s 2020 growth has been the work West and her team has been doing for the past few years.

West has been with Chipotle for 14 years, helping the chain grow from 400 stores to 2,600. The vice president, along with her digital team, are tasked with developing and growing the brand’s digital channels, including the mobile app, website, Facebook Messenger, and voice.

The work West and her team started three years ago put Chipotle in a unique and enviable position. The chain quickly met changes in consumer behavior brought on by the coronavirus pandemic (along with increased dependence on technology). Today’s consumer is more focused on delivery and takeout than ever before, and that interest isn’t driven solely by a desire for convenience.

West explained that a large part of Chipotle’s digital success is coming from consumers’ health and safety concerns. Customers who use Chipotle’s digital tools and dedicated “Chipotlanes” can have a convenient and contactless experience. Chipotlanes are strictly for off-premise ordering, which keeps operations streamlined and easier for team members.

Intriguingly, an In-N-Out representative was among this webinar’s audience members. They inquired about Chipotlanes during the Q&A portion, perhaps signaling that the burger chain will be testing such a feature at their locations.

Consumers, according to West, have grown more comfortable engaging with restaurants via digital over the past several months. In fact, they’re actively seeking it out. Operators would be well server to realize that a digital strategy is crucial for increasing traffic, converting new customers, and building loyalty among regulars.

As an example for how a brand can teach their guests to use digital channels more often, Chipotle incentivizes the use of their tools by offering digital-only items. These range from Lifestyle Bowls and “influencer” selections to the new Tony Hawk Burrito.

Getting customers to buy into digital involves elements beyond digital-only F&B perks, of course. Over the course of the webinar, West made it clear that meeting customers where they are, trust, and ease of use are crucial. “We can never compromise on that simplicity,” she said.

With the tools, developers and programmers available to operators today, basically anyone can add digital to their business. But if an app or other tool is overcomplicated and the experience is inconsistent, mediocre or disappointing, the development of digital channels will be a fruitless and costly endeavor.

West cautioned that digital is nothing without trust. Orders must be accurate. They must be delivered in a timely manner or, if scheduled, available on time. Hot items must be hot, cold items must be cold. Consistent quality is crucial. Trust hinges on providing the same great dine-in experience a guest knows or expects from a business as they provide via delivery or pickup.

Speaking of scheduled pickup, West and her team has identified that feature as a popular one for Chipotle. She explained that many Chipotle customers plan ahead, placing their orders early for pickup later in the day. Status updates are also popular with digital customers whether they’re ordering on demand or scheduling for later. West joked that she wondered if Chipotle customers were more organized people in general.

Another popular feature identified by West is re-ordering. With a few taps, repeat customers can place past orders, offering another level of convenience. Customers can give their repeat orders names or, since Chipotle enjoys having some fun with its guests, the company may name repeats on their behalf. Superusers, said West, have found Easter eggs in their mobile app. (Cue readers leaving this article to explore the Chipotle app.)

For Facebook Messenger customers and those who still like to place their orders via phone, Chipotle has a chatbot called Pepper. Superusers who know the routine can easily and quickly place orders with the confidence that what they’ll receive will be accurate. Users who tend to skip options when ordering will be prompted by Pepper to ensure they also receive a top-notch experience.

Chiptole and West’s arsenal of digital tools shows commitment to meeting guests where they are. App, phone and messenger users each have access to convenient digital channels that are easy to use. According to West, Chatter will have access to Chipotle ordering by the end of the year. It’s a safe bet that additional access points will be launched before 2021 as well.

Digital channels paired with dark kitchens—every Chipotle location has one, which also places the chain in a unique position—and Chipotlanes (there are now 100) have proven to be an industry-dominating combination. Customers are provided with the convenience they crave and the safety they need, and Chipotle operations are increasingly streamlined.

The future of the restaurant industry is digital, if Chipotle’s success in 2020 is any indication.

Connect with Chipotle on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Download the Chipotle app for iOS or Android.

David Klemt View All

I’ve been studying and writing about the hospitality industry since 2006. Like so many people, I started my journey in this business by working as a host, server and bartender. I was introduced to nightlife in Chicago, learning the ins and outs of nightclubs and after-hours hot spots.

After moving to Las Vegas nearly 20 years ago, I both co-owned a valet company and helped promote the club it serviced. That led to me taking on the role of editor for a Las Vegas hospitality industry publication.

A few short years later, I continued along my journey of hospitality industry reporting. I went from contributing to a major industry outlet to taking on the role of editor and content curator.

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