The pandemic hasn’t done much to slow Chipotle’s digital business, which just had its best quarter ever in terms of sales. In the wake of that, the chain has steadily continued releasing new features to its app and this week brought a few more, including the launch of the Chipotle app in Canada and yet-more features for all users of the chain’s mobile app.
The standout of those new features is Pepper, a so-called Concierge Bot, which customers can use via Facebook Messenger to order food. Once a user selects the “message us” button on Chipotle’s Facebook page and gives Pepper their location, the bot will pick the nearest available Chipotle store and walk the customer through the order process. According to a press release sent to The Spoon, that process is supposed to mirror Chipotle’s in-restaurant make line, where guests move down the assembly line specifying which ingredients they want and how much of each to include. Alternatively, customers can use a natural language option and simply describe what they want to Pepper. Guests can pay directly through Pepper.
This new channel for customers to order, pay, and receive their meals introduces Chipotle’s mobile order ecosystem to yet-another potential digital audience. And while Facebook is a third-party platform, orders placed via Pepper get funneled through Chipotle’s own Page, allowing the restaurant to directly interact with those customers. Chipotle said in its release today that this new feature is meant to make “online ordering easier and more convenient for fans.” But I’ll wager it’s as much about taking back control of customer relationships (and data) as it is about giving Facebook diehards an easy way to order burritos.
The addition of Pepper also makes Chipotle the latest big-name restaurant chain to start reeling certain parts of delivery and digital ordering back under its own roof. For the last few years, managing the order-pay-dropoff process for off-premises orders has largely been the territory of third-party services like DoorDash and Uber Eats. But in the last few months, that’s started to change. Several chains, including Panera and Bloomin’ Brands restaurants, use hybrid delivery strategies, where third parties only handle a piece of the delivery operation. In some cases that’s the technical infrastructure; in others, it’s supplying drivers for the last mile. Others, notably Panda Express this week, have launched their own in-house delivery stack that manages the entire process, from ordering to dropping off.
For a deep-pocketed brand like Chipotle, this business of slowly shifting off-premises in-house is probably most about getting back control of customer relationships. The pandemic has forced restaurants to rely a whole lot more on their digital properties. Through those properties, brands must be able to offer contactless ordering and payment functionalities, and they must be able to clearly communicate with customers about those features. That’s a little tough to do if your entire customer base resides on a third-party platform like DoorDash that’s merely telling you to make the food. As one industry executive noted when we spoke a couple months back, restaurants ” need to rethink how they’re connecting digitally with their customers.”
Other announcements from Chipotle this week also emphasized Chipotle’s digital strategy and how it wants to connect with its customers in a post-pandemic restaurant industry. As well as Pepper, Chipotle also released a new group-ordering feature where multiple people can hop on the same order and everyone has the ability to track their food.
For all digital orders placed via the Chipotle app, guests will be able to round up their order total to the next highest dollar amount and donate the extra to “organizations advocating against issues like systematic racism and inequality,” according to the press release. Chipotle will kick this program off with donations to the National Urban League.
And, as mentioned above, Canadian Chipotle fans can now use the Chipotle app or order food via Chipotle.ca, Uber Eats, and DoorDash.
Chipotle’s business didn’t suffer terribly during shelter-in-place orders, largely because so much of the chain’s work over the last two years has been around developing an insanely ambitious digital strategy. This week’s news suggests the company isn’t planning to rest on its laurels anytime soon.