Chipotle turns curses of online ordering into blessings

In selling online ordering to the restaurant industry, tech providers have promised and delivered a sales tool that saves labor and streamlines the traditional ordering process.

But as online-ordering platforms have evolved beyond fax or e-mail systems to include features like POS integration and now, group ordering, those blessings have delivered unforeseen operational curses, namely handling an increased volume of orders from a difficult-to-manage channel.

Historically, the line of humans at the door self-managed the speed of customer flow into the restaurant. But online-ordering systems — and the customers who use it from afar — are largely indifferent to store-level activity, which can result in a crush of orders coming all at once.

That’s been the case many times at Chipotle Mexican Grill, where large online orders can stagger the otherwise manageable flow of transactions inside the store. According to Chris Arnold, director of pubic relations for the 840-store Denver-based burrito chain, unit operators long ago mastered the pace of counter orders. But as more customers began using online ordering after it was launched two years ago, adding those transactions to the mix has been troublesome.


“You’d have [cooks] getting the online order by fax and trying to assemble those orders as counter orders were coming in,” said Arnold. “When it was really busy, they were getting in each other’s way on the line and slowing things down while others were trying to assemble burritos.”

Chipotle integrated its online-ordering system into its POS system in 2008, which improved overall order flow dramatically. But with POS integration also came group ordering, which introduced other challenges, such as bursts of huge, multi-item transactions for 20 and 30 customers.

In brief, group ordering allows multiple customers, such as an office staff, to place their entire order as one transaction over the Internet, rather than piecemeal over the phone or at the counter. A group transaction begins with one person who places his order and then “invites” others via email to “join the group” and place their orders.

The feature allows for exceptional detail, such as giving all group members the chance to add individual and customized requests, such as “sauce on the side” and “extra guacamole.” They also prepay for their food through an account established at the restaurant’s website, eliminating the need to hustle up correct change at the office.

When the restaurant’s expediter receives the order via the Internet, he sees a single, organized and detailed order that mirrors those produced in the store. But it’s often a big one, and, as Arnold said, that’s where trouble can start.

“Getting an order for 30 burritos all at once is a good problem to have, but preparing that without disrupting the flow at the line or taking too much time for that large transaction is hard,” Arnold said.

Chipotle’s solution was to retrofit its busiest restaurants — typically in dense, urban areas with many people and businesses — with mini-makelines devoted strictly to Internet orders flowing in during peak periods. Online orders go only to the mini-makeline’s POS terminal and are handled by workers staged there just for the crunch.

“These are a huge help in restaurants where we’re doing 275 transactions per hour over the counter,” Arnold said. “When the rush is over, those orders are switched back to the main line,” and staffers either leave or start prepping for the next shift.

Some online ordering software tells customers their orders may take longer because of the size of the transaction or current store volume, but the feature isn’t widely available yet. For now, Arnold said, fixing the problem with additional tools and labor is working well. He said many future Chipotle restaurants will include a mini-makeline in their designs, and that retrofits will be done on a case-by-case basis.

The online ordering platform used by Mama Fu’s Asian House also uses group ordering, and that feature has CEO Randy Murphy excited.

“That thing rocks; it’s perfect for what we’re trying to do,” said Murphy, whose 14-unit company is based in Austin, Texas. But unlike Chipotle, Mama Fu’s delivers orders to customers, and that could create its own problems when managing the flow of large Internet orders.

“We’re just now trying these systems out and learning them ourselves,” Murphy said in January. Making sure the kitchen doesn’t produce faster than drivers deliver is part of the learning curve.

“Only a small amount of our customers are ordering online, so it’s giving us a chance to work out the kinks as we go along,” he said.