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Chipotle_Digital_Kitchen.jpg Chipotle Mexican Grill
Chipotle is testing a digital-only kitchen in Highland Falls, N.Y.

Staying nimble: Chipotle prepares for expansion with multiple formats

Development chief Tabassum Zalotrawala shares insights into the fast-casual chain’s plans for growth

Perhaps more than anything else, restaurants of the future will be need to be flexible in format to serve guests with varying needs.

That’s according to Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Chief of Development Tabassum Zalotrawala, who shared her insights during a session on “Inside Chipotle’s Recipe for Growth,” part of the ongoing Nation’s Restaurant News digital series CREATE: The Future of Foodservice.

With about 200 restaurants opening per year and a push into Canada planned, Chipotle is positioning its brand for nimble growth with innovative new formats. The Newport Beach, Calif.-based chain has plans to grow locations with “Chipotlane” drive-thrus, for example, and it is testing digital-only kitchens with no dining room or front service line. The chain is also working to improve delivery and “carside,” or curbside, service.

“The restaurant of the future is not just one format. It’s one that continues to evolve,” said Zalotrawala. “I think it’s more important than ever to carefully curate the type of format that fits best in a certain trade area,” whether it’s a delivery-only location, digital-only or even one that needs a larger dining room and drive-thru.

Tabassum_Zalotrawala-chipotle_0.pngOf the 40 Chipotle units that opened during the March 31-ended first quarter, 26 had Chipotlanes, and the drive-thru units have demonstrated about 10% higher sales than traditional Chipotle restaurants, Zalotrawala said. 

Chipotlane units are central to the chain’s growth strategy, she added. Where physically possible, existing units will add Chipotlanes, she said. Where a drive-thru may not be possible for existing properties, the company may look to relocate restaurants.

The digital kitchen formats in test at a location in Highland Falls, N.Y., will be targeting guests who order ahead through third-party delivery platforms or Chipotle’s app or website. Guests have the option of picking up from a “lobby” that gives a view into the kitchen, but customers don’t walk the line, as they do in traditional restaurants. “It’s good for those in a hurry or those avoiding large crowds,” she said.

This year and next, the company plans to test the format in a few more locations where digital sales are strong.

About 98% of Chipotle’s nearly 3,000 restaurants have second make-lines that serve digital orders, and the company’s digital sales have grown 174% year over year, Zalotrawala said. Digital orders now account for about half of sales overall.

 “Our digital business in every restaurant is almost $1 million, so it really is a restaurant within a restaurant and that’s a big change,” she said. “It’s no longer a side business. It’s a business on its own.”

The chain plans continue investing in technology to better the customer experience and make the brand more convenient and accessible, she said. 

The pandemic year has also been a learning experience, especially when it comes to inefficiency, and future restaurants will be designed to help the chain meet sustainability goals for diverting waste from landfills. 

“The ways in which the sector has become wasteful has become painfully apparent,” said Zalotrawala. “So reopening restaurants may take the opportunity to move to a more circular economy and virtually eliminating waste.”

Another teaser from the session: Chipotle may soon be adding a new dessert to the menu —though Zalotrawala offered no details.

Watch the session on-demand at


CREATE sponsors:

Founding sponsor: Johnsonville Foodservice

Gold sponsor: Texas Pete and The Coca-Cola Co.

Silver sponsor: Ecolab

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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