Chipotle Leverages Mobile Pickup to Skirt Drive-Thru Regulations

Chipotle Leans on Drive-Thru to Boost Efficiency

By limiting the experience to mobile pickup, Chipotle is bringing its “Chipotlanes” to non-drive-thru locations.

In an interview with PYMNTS, Chipotle Chief Development Officer Tabassum Zalotrawala described how the fast-casual brand is expanding the reach of its mobile drive-thru lanes by removing some of the key elements that typically define the channel. This, in turn, is enabling the company to meet consumers’ demand for convenience, driving sales.

“While we refer to Chipotlanes as the digital drive-thru of the future, a pickup lane is a more accurate description,” Zalotrawala said. “Unlike traditional drive-thrus, Chipotlanes do not have a speaker box, menu board, excessive signage or a large stack of cars waiting to order and get their food. … The differentiation is important in jurisdictions that prohibit drive-thrus.”

She added that the company, having argued for this distinction, has been able to “successfully introduce” the concept into “some cities that typically do not permit standard drive-thrus.”

Certainly, many consumers seek out the drive-thru channel. Research from the 2022 Restaurant Friction Index, which drew from a census-balanced survey of more than 2,100 U.S. consumers, found that 35% of diners said they would be more inclined to purchase from restaurants that offer drive-thru pickup.

However, restaurants have been seeing mixed results with their drive-thrus in recent months. Drive-thru giant McDonald’s, which as of 2019 had more than 20,000 such locations around the world, is seeing its drive-thru business normalizing after spiking during the pandemic. Yet drive-thru coffee chain Dutch Bros’ drive-thrus are seeing an increase in sales, and Starbucks, the world’s largest restaurant brand by revenue, has been seeing increased demand for drive-thru.

Chipotle, which currently has about 500 drive-thru locations and plans to open more than 250 additional Chipotlanes in 2023, is looking to on-site data use to boost sales going forward.

“I’m excited by the advanced location technology pilot we have in Cleveland,” Zalotrawala said, referring to the company’s Contextual Restaurant Experience test announced in September. “Early results indicate positive performance with improved in-store rewards engagement, order alert notifications, and efficiencies with earlier assignments for marketplace delivery drivers.”

She noted that the location-based technology, which recognizes rewards program members when they arrive at the store, can help determine their “intent” and can use their information to “enhance their experience with order readiness messaging, reminders to scan the Chipotle Rewards QR code at checkout, wrong location detection and more.”

Chipotle is not the only major brand to test on-site personalization at the drive-thru. Last year, quick-service restaurant (QSR) Burger King began testing a program that uses Bluetooth to identify Royal Perks loyalty program members. When these members drive by, Burger King displays items they have previously ordered on its digital menu board, personalizing the experience.

In addition to these kinds of data-centric initiatives, Zalotrawala said she also expects other kinds of fulfillment methods to boost sales going forward. For instance, she asserted that there is “tremendous growth potential with walk-up windows,” noting some successful tests of the concept in “high-foot trafficked urban areas” and other areas that do not allow drive-thru lanes.

On the flip side, she said she believes that not all tech-powered order channels are destined for success.

“I argue that kiosks for in-restaurant ordering are overhyped,” Zalotrawala said. “With smartphones, everyone has a mobile ordering kiosk in their pocket.”