Chipotle announced it’s opening a new “Digital Kitchen” restaurant this month in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (about 40 miles south of Cleveland) — which will exclusively accept online orders.
The prototype location will offer its pickup-only drive-thru “Chipotlane,” some outdoor seats and tables for eating (no dining room), and a walk-up window. Hungry customers should avoid knocking on that pickup window expecting to have their order taken. Instead, order online or on the Chipotle app and then check back at the window or roll up to the drive-thru.
Chipotle says that there are about 300 restaurant locations with a drive-thru window already, which only accounts for about 10 percent of all its burrito procuring destinations. Should this prototype digital kitchen store be successful, we can probably expect to see fewer dining rooms with soda stations, and say goodbye to DIY smoked chipotle Tabasco sauce application (as of right now, you can’t select this sauce in the order system).
Chipotle might run into issues with customers trying to take orders at the window, only to be turned away to go order online. As long as the restaurant looks like a Chipotle, which is a place people expect to line up and build a burrito, there’s going to be some confusion. It could be beneficial for Chipotle to visually differentiate its digital kitchen more and lean into being a ghost kitchen, from which the company seems to be borrowing a bit of the idea.
The concept of ghost kitchens, an online-only virtual restaurant that has no customer-facing location, has gained in popularity. Ghost kitchens like MrBeast Burger have operated out of restaurants that need another source of revenue during the pandemic. The concept has also evolved into kitchens running out of shipping containers and parking lots. A ghost kitchen is, by design, only going to invite online delivery orders with no customers trying to knock on doors.
Although not a ghost kitchen, concepts like Chipotle’s Digital Kitchen are popping up everywhere in this pandemic world — including new spots for Jack in the Box, Del Taco, and Taco Bell. In an effort to practice social distancing, more people are ordering food online, using delivery services, and hitting the drive-thrus. Chipotle’s Chipotlane locations are also growing to accommodate this, and one easy way to do that is to take over buildings that already have a drive-thru.
At least one location I found in North Bergen, New Jersey used to be a Carl’s Jr., but now it’s a Chipotlane. Chipotle will probably continue to do this — new restaurants with Chipotlanes apparently have 15 percent higher sales than ones without — until they can output beans and guac nearly as fast as Taco Bell can, perhaps further risking burnout for its workers.
Taco Bell, the recently alternative-meat snubbing fast-food chain, announced in August its first “Taco Bell Defy” location in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota that is exclusively a four-lane drive-thru. The new locations will have an upper-level kitchen that sends digital orders down via a lift without any human contact. Three of those four lanes are also dedicated to delivery services — while Chipotle will be sharing just the one with both DoorDash type delivery services and regular customers.