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chipotle-store.png Nancy Luna
Chipotle has seen much success during the pandemic.

Restaurants Rise: How operators can learn from technology-driven Chipotle Mexican Grill during the coronavirus pandemic crisis

The future of restaurant technology is in the simplicity and ease of customer experience, through ‘dark kitchens,’ drive-thru restaurants and more, according to Chipotle

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape and challenge the restaurant industry, the key for most successful operators has been an ability to pivot to serve an almost completely digital customer base. Chipotle — with digital sales growth through the roof at 216% during their most recent quarter through June 30 — is in the minority of restaurant brands that have thrived throughout the pandemic.

For Chipotle, they did not have to pivot very far: Much of their success during the pandemic boils down to being able to lean into the digital innovations already an integral part of their technology strategy, from dark kitchens in all of their restaurants to the creation of the Chipotlanes pickup-only drive and walk-thru restaurants that were launched last year, Nicole West, vice president of digital strategy and product said during Wednesday’s Restaurants Rise webinar on The Future of Restaurant Technology.

“We were uniquely positioned going into the COVID crisis to handle the shift in consumer behavior,” West said. “We had a strong foundation to build on everything from user experience to customer engagement and scalability of restaurant technology. The ops team was more than ready to run a digital kitchen and deliver without missing a beat.”

Simple is best

But even though the transition to a COVID-19 economy was a natural pivot for Chipotle and other technology-driven brands, not all restaurants have invested in the same digital tools. For beginners, West recommends focusing on making the user experience easier, not more complex, with the addition of new digital tools like ordering technology and ghost kitchens.

“To me a great user experience is about simplicity, ease of use and removing friction from user experience,” West said. “It’s important to stay true to the experience that you want to deliver and don’t overcomplicate things […] Really define who you are who your customer is and stay focused on that.”

For example, the Chipotle app features are mostly simple but are all aimed to make user experience more convenient from the reorder button to preordering functionality, which West said is very popular with their customers. Other clean and simple user solutions include Facebook messenger ordering and automated phone ordering where a virtual AI concierge takes and confirms your order instead of waiting for a store employed to pick up the phone.

Know what your customer wants

Even before the pandemic hit, Chipotle capitalized on the fact that their digital customer base was growing and was expecting speed, convenience and ease of service.

“We saw early on that if we wanted to grow this digital business to its full potential that we had to innovate for our customers and make that in-restaurant experience as easy as possible,” West said.

At the end of 2019, Chipotle launched the store prototype for Chipotlanes, or pickup-only drive and walk-through restaurants, and has since opened 100 Chipotlane stores.

“Our customers love Chipotlanes,” West said, adding that Chipotlane stores, especially now that customers are especially concerned with food safety and limited contact, see higher digital sales volume than traditional stores.

Other convenience-emphasized technology solutions includes the Chipotle Delivery Kitchens, or “digital second make lanes,” which have been retrofitted to all 2,600 Chipotles nationwide so that each restaurant could have two teams and food production centers: one for digital orders and one for in-person store customers.

“We call the Delivery Kitchen our superpower,” West said.

Get creative to drive digital engagement

Now, to keep the momentum going during these rough times, Chipotle will continue to stay focused by coming up with new ways to drive customer engagement, much of which is now online. For example, the company launched digital-only menu items like their quesadillas, lifestyle bowls, and Tony Hawk-sponsored custom burrito to incentivize customers to download the app and interact with their digital interface.  

“I think we all know that customers are becoming increasingly comfortable with digital and seeking more convenience in their life,” West said. “We’ve incentivized people who have maybe not tried digital yet or are even new to Chipotle to see how easy it is and to become regular customers.”

This is part of special coverage of the Restaurants Rise digital summit taking place online Aug. 11-13 and Aug. 18-20, powered by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at

Title sponsors for Restaurants Rise include Campbell’s Foodservice, GrubHub, Idaho Potato, ShiftPixy, Wisely and Impossible.

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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