• Chipotle fans who enjoy seeing and picking the ingredients for their meals and speaking to employees to place their orders will find a much different customer experience at the brand’s new location in Highlands, New York.

    There’s no line for ordering, no tables, and no place to eat. In the brand’s first digital-only restaurant, opened late last year, there’s not even a cash register. Orders will be pickup only, with ingredient selection conveyed via the brand’s app or website, or through third-party delivery services. Large catering orders can be picked up through a special entrance.

    “This is the first Chipotle that doesn’t have seating and is designed for pick-up and delivery orders,” said Tabassum Zalotrawala, Chief Development Officer for the chain. One digital operation serves all the incoming orders. 

    “From a customer’s point of view,” he added, “if they haven’t ordered ahead, we have cues inside the restaurant lobby where they may scan for the app and order on site, using the app.

    From nice-to-have to must-have

    This new online-only outlet reflects the importance of digital sales for the quick-service restaurant. Last quarter, digital sales accounted for nearly half of the brand’s revenue, jumping 177% compared to a year ago. In Q3, such sales increased 202% year-over-year, and 216% in Q2. In 2020, the company said, digital orders totaled $2.5 billion, more than double the previous year.

    About half of those digital sales were for delivery via partnerships, said Zalotrawala, and the rest came from order-ahead sales.

    In 2020, digital sales for many restaurant chains “went from being a nice-to-have to being a must-have,” said Code3 CEO Drew Kraemer. His performance marketing agency has worked with Chipotle on its digital campaigns.

    “Digital was on [Chipotle’s] mind” before the pandemic, he said. The outbreak 

    “just accelerated what was going to happen.” Chipotle pushed into digital by promoting its app, emphasizing discounts on delivery, educating consumers about how to buy through the brand’s app/website, and reaching Gen Z on its massively popular TikTok account.

    For those who still want to eventually dine at a Chipotle, though, worry not—Zalotrawala shared that although his company expects that “pandemic-inspired behaviors, like increased reliance on digital, will stick, that doesn’t mean we’re moving away from in-restaurant dining.”

    The pandemic has also spurred other quick-serve restaurants to redesign their footprint to facilitate pick up: Taco Bell, Burger King, and Shake Shack have all added drive-through lanes, and Starbucks shut down hundreds of cafes with seating and replaced them with pickup-only stores. The appeal includes easier ordering, reduced wait times, and maintaining social distancing.

    More personalized experiences

    Christian Selchau-Hansen, CEO and Co-founder at personalized marketing platform Formation.ai, sees another advantage that remote ordering has over in-store: “making the app experience truly personal at every touch point, [whether] it’s ordering your favorite burrito or receiving a highly relevant “personal” offer.”

    In fact, if more restaurant locations follow Chipotle’s lead and become the back end to the app/site front end, the nature of eating out could change dramatically. More extensive restaurant front-ends can become tuned to the customer’s needs more precisely than the simple “order online” forms now available—and certainly more precisely than ordering and eating on site.

    This additional personalization is just one way in which digital-first dining can evolve. It’s not difficult to imagine commercial versions of ordering and eating remotely with friends and strangers via video conferencing, a practice that has become commonplace during the pandemic. 

    Like going out to the movies, going out to eat is likely to reemerge post-pandemic in a different form. And, like movie theaters, restaurants will now have to address the many ways in which full-featured online service has changed homes from simply being the origination point for customers to becoming an extension of the going-out experience.

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