After the pandemic accelerated the digital economy, no restaurant chain has grown its mobile and online ordering like Chipotle Mexican Grill, which in 2022 is expected to surpass the $3 billion mark for digital sales alone.
Leading that effort as vice president of digital strategy and product is Nicole West, one of few female leaders in the restaurant tech world.
West said she worked previously in nonprofits and political consulting before she was drawn to Chipotle by its mission of creating a better world. She started with the brand in marketing but took on side projects as the company built its e-commerce business and “realized this mobile app and mobile order thing wasn’t just a fad,” she said.
Chipotle’s multi-year transformation as a digital leader began in earnest in 2017. Now, CEO Brian Niccol sees the digital side as almost a separate business. As the chain works to double in size in North America — growing from almost 3,000 units now to 6,000 — the quest to grow digital sales is shaping restaurant design and function.
The company, for example, is aggressively growing locations with drive-thru pickup for digital orders — dubbed Chipotlanes — which demonstrate about 15% higher sales than traditional units. At the end of 2021, about 300 of the chain’s 2,900 restaurants had Chipotlanes.
In addition, Chipotle in December launched a new Digital Kitchen format, a restaurant that only takes digital orders, with guests picking up through the drive-thru or a walk-up window. The format has no dine-in or in-restaurant ordering, and no customer-facing make line. The company plans to grow the smaller-footprint Digital Kitchen locations alongside traditional and Chipotlane units.
Perhaps more than anything, Chipotle has earned its digital performance by engaging with loyal fans where they live and play. The brand has developed content for platforms from the gamer-friendly Twitch and Gen Z-favorite TikTok, to the metaverse world of Roblox.
West said the chain will continue to explore use of artificial intelligence and automation, enhancing features like the brand’s customer-facing “concierge bot” named Pepper, but also appearing in new ways on the metaverse. “You’ll see Chipotle continue to show up in unexpected ways,” said West.
Wherever and however Chipotle digital content appears next, the focus will remain on the customer experience, she said.
“Our north star has always been and will continue to be a relentless focus on guest experience,” said West. “So user experience and interface design, customer experience end-to-end through the digital pickup or delivery journey — that really drives all decisions. That combined with a design thinking approach allows us to deliver exceptional digital experiences for our guests.”
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