During Brian Niccol’s first conference call as Chipotle CEO, the former Taco Bell leader briefly breached the subject of drive-thru lanes. He said they were “an interesting proposition for Chipotle as an element,” and that “they’ll be something that will definitely be a part of our access innovation program.”
While a long-term target, early details are trickling out. Five U.S. locations—two in Ohio and single stores in Tennessee, Texas, and Massachusetts—have added the platform, with more on the way. But perhaps more notable than the impending growth is the design itself: Guests can’t actually order from them.
Chipotle’s drive-thru windows don’t have a microphone or ordering feature; they’re built for order-ahead service via the chain’s app or website. Customers are given a pick-up time to drive over and receive their food without having to leave their vehicle or go in the restaurant.
Curt Garner, chief digital and information officer at Chipotle, told CNBC that Chipotle believes it has a “huge opportunity ahead of us as it relates to access.” And with only 2,500 stores, “there are plenty of places and occasions for us to continue to grow into.”
“But as we've looked at access, we've also looked at it in terms of different restaurant formats and these mobile drive-thru pick-up restaurants are part of that,” he added.
Garner said Chipotle is taking potential drive-thru access into account with current and future real estate as it looks to grow. Part of its expansion criteria now includes understanding “how many of those sites might lend themselves to [the drive-thru] experience, even if we don’t open them immediately with [the mobile lane] enabled,” he said to CNBC. The outlet is also reporting that a new mobile pick-up lane-ready Chipotle is expected to open in Virginia by year’s end.
In the early days of Chipotle’s order-ahead functionality, throughput was a major concern. As convenience ramps up, especially following the chain’s DoorDash deal that made delivery available from more than 1,500 restaurants around the country, speed of service will become even more critical. How will Chipotle ensure drive-thru orders are brought to the window on time?
In February, the company unveiled a $45 million plan to retrofit new make-lines at about 30 percent of restaurants in an effort to increase the amount of digital orders that could be processed. Chipotle said it expects these digitally enhanced second-make lines to be in about 1,000 units by the end of the year. In April, Niccol said they were in 237 Chipotles. In those units, order accuracy boosted and drove a nearly 20 percent improvement in customer feedback.
John Hartung, Chipotle’s chief financial officer, added the majority of second make-line orders are app and web orders, but also include third-party delivery orders and catering. “The surge in mobile sales since relaunching our app late last year gives us confidence that our customers appreciate the great experience,” he said.