Chipotle is expanding, even if its restaurants can’t seat customers.
On Saturday, the fast-casual burrito chain will open its first digital-only restaurant. The new location will have no dining room, no line for ordering in-person, and will forbid eating inside the premises. Instead, customers will order in advance through the Chipotle app, on the restaurant’s website or through a third-party delivery app like Seamless or Postmates.
But Chipotle, in many ways, invented modern order-taking, with its streamlined process that lets diners customize their orders and pay in less than two minutes. So why are they now reinventing the wheel once again? You can thank the pandemic for that.
Rise of Takeout
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, more Americans have relied on takeout orders than ever. Many have grown more accustomed to isolating at home, and in some cities, indoor dining is still strictly-limited. As a result, delivery services and easy carry-out have become paramount to the resilience of the restaurant industry.
Fittingly, Chipotle reports that digital sales more than tripled in this year’s third quarter. Additionally, CEO Brian Niccol estimates that total digital orders could exceed $2.5 billion this year. That’s more than double what the company made last year.
But Chipotle is not the only takeout chain reimagining its design. Burger King and Shake Shack, for instance, have announced plans to expand drive-thru lanes exclusively for delivery drivers and online orders. Meanwhile, Starbucks plans to build more cafes exclusively for mobile pickups, exceeding its own initial plans to expand such options. The coffee giant will continue its expansion of pickup-only locations into next year.
Of course, digital ordering and quick delivery were popular options for years before the pandemic. Apps like Seamless, GrubHub, Postmates, and Uber Eats make ordering a meal as easy as tapping your smart phone. Just a few years ago, several publications ran stories about the rise of the so-called “ghost restaurant,” a kitchen that advertised on delivery apps as a legitimate restaurant, but which had no actual dining location. Like the new Chipotle model, ghost restaurants focus solely on preparing food for takeout, discouraging patrons from visiting the actual site.
The new all-digital Chipotle design is tailored for urban areas, where real estate is more expensive, and where mounting a full-scale restaurant is less feasible. Its first location, however, will not be in a big city, but rather in Highland Falls, NY, just a stone’s throw from West Point.
The design will also accommodate large catering orders, which is likely to be a rising focus of Chipotle’s takeout operation. The store will have an entry and lobby area for picking up such orders, but will prohibit eating in the restaurant and discourage loitering.