How Chipotle Manages Soaring Mobile Order Demand

Making order-ahead work takes the right mix of technology, timing and training — a lesson Chipotle has learned after debuting mobile ordering a decade ago, says chief digital and information officer Curt Garner. In the latest Mobile Order-Ahead Tracker, Garner gives PYMNTS a look into what the QSR has done to improve its fulfillment time by 32 minutes and increase mobile orders by 41 percent in just the last year.

Even a great product can quickly turn customers off if the purchasing experience is frustrating and filled with friction. Burrito lovers might move on to the next lunch spot if the promised convenient ordering process turns out to involve a long wait, ends with them walking off with someone else’s order or sees them biting into a burrito that lacks the guacamole they paid extra to enjoy.

Those are the types of concerns Chipotle Mexican Grill has been working to tackle since debuting its mobile ordering service in 2008. For the burrito and bowl QSR chain, speed and reliability are as important as flavor and ingredient accuracy.

“An excellent customer experience means delicious food that is made on time — and accurately,” said Curt Garner, Chipotle’s chief digital and information officer, in a recent conversation with PYMNTS.

In earlier days, a customer had to wait approximately 45 minutes for his order to be ready for pickup. That timeline is now closer to 12 minutes, and that’s with mobile orders increasing 41 percent between Q1 2017 and Q1 2018 to reach 8.8 percent of all sales. So, what does it take to trim a whole half hour of prep time? According to Garner, data-based work flow design, automation and other digital supports and app features are all good places to start.

The Second Make Line

When a customer walks into a Chipotle venue, one of the first things she sees is a row of ingredient bins with staff members ready to scoop up the desired fixings. What she doesn’t see is a second, digitally enhanced version of this assembly line in the back, where staff whip up the orders that come from outside the store.

Creating this second, dedicated preparation line was a key step for Chipotle.

“[For] many restaurants, when they take out-of-store orders, it interrupts the flow for the customers that are in the restaurant and the teams that are serving the guests,” Garner said. “We’ve built a dedicated make line, called the second make line, that only exists to serve those orders that come from out of store.”

Chipotle has more recently been rolling out digital support to help the second make line staff work more efficiently. It did away with printing customers’ orders on paper receipts, a system that could easily get confused. Those orders are instead listed on LCD screens positioned over the make line, and the display shows images of each ingredient needed to more quickly and clearly convey the information. The ingredient bins also light up and are color-coded for quick recognition. A label is then automatically printed to be placed on the order or its pick-up bag, replacing a process that once required staff to hand-write a description.

Controlled Pick-Up Times

Even with all these digital aids, there’s still a limit to how many orders humans can fill at a time. To address this, Chipotle conducted time and motion studies to determine fulfillment capacity expectations for its kitchens. The QSR settled on offering customers pick-up time slots spaced 15 minutes apart. A customer can either choose a desired time slot ahead of time — placing an order for lunchtime during his morning commute, for example — or opt for the next available opening in approximately 15 minutes.

“We can’t overload the restaurant with mobile orders,” Garner noted. “Part of the reason the promised fulfillment time was longer in the past was because the teams had to hedge a lot. There was no metering, and they could become overwhelmed at lunch and need extra time to catch up … [under this system], waves of customers come in every 15 minutes, and our teams can then focus on creating the meals in those times [when] it’s not a pick-up time [slot].”

The ability to choose a pick-up time has become popular, and the app is specifically designed with built-in buffer so that a customer who selects a noon pickup won’t lose it while placing the rest of his order, he added.

Fixing Up More Features

Other app features have also helped the QSR to digitize more of its processes. In its early days, corporate offices that wanted to order food for a lunch meeting often sent in group orders by fax. Chipotle has been able to reduce the use of fax by making other channels more appealing, which required adding a digital group ordering feature that enables friends to join an order by cell phone number or email. A feature to allow for bill splitting has yet to be added.

Looking ahead, the QSR is toying with more ideas to enhance its offerings, like creating a loyalty program — something it has never offered for longer than a few months — or even adding drive-thrus. Regardless of what it ultimately unveils, the focus remains on leveraging digital tools to quickly get burritos into the hands of hungry customers.

After all, the QSR has learned that the recipe for offering compelling meals to in-store and out-of-store customers alike relies not only on tasty food and front-of-store preparations, but also on cooking up the right fix for back-office operations.