Chipotle just recorded its highest quarterly level ever for digital sales, according to the company’s Q1 2020 investor call yesterday. Company CEO Brian Niccol said digital sales grew 81 percent, to $372 million, representing 26.3 percent of sales during the first quarter.
Numbers include the month of March, when restaurants across the country started shutting down dining rooms in efforts to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The upheaval this has caused for the restaurant industry can’t be understated: everyone from small, independent restaurants to massive chains like The Cheesecake Factory have seen sales drop in some cases, and nosedive in others.
Why not Chipotle?
For one, the company has long been doubling down on its digital business, which powers off-premises orders for delivery, takeout, and drive-thru. Prior to the pandemic, Chipotle already operated a $1 billion-plus digital business. Over the last couple years, the company has forged partnerships with multiple delivery companies, revamped its rewards programs, introduced new store formats for to-go-friendly business models, and added more drive-thru lanes — “Chipotlanes” — to its locations. It helps that the chain has always offered the kinds of quick-service meals made with food that travels well.
On the call this week, Niccol suggested that in order to combat the sudden loss of dining room traffic, the company was able to accelerate its existing digital initiatives: “the majority of our restaurants are open for to-go orders, which is allowing us to successfully leverage the digital platform we put in place over the past two years.”
He added that, “As people started to implement social distancing, we moved swiftly by driving further investments toward digital and delivery designed to reduce friction, while increasing convenient access.”
Delivery remains the fastest-growing segment of Chipotle’s digital offerings. A partnership struck with Uber Eats in March no doubt helps, as it gives the chain access to even more potential diners. Niccol said digital order-ahead transactions were also up, “doubling from the levels seen prior to COVID.” Daily signups for the Chipotle rewards program have spiked “nearly fourfold.”
A recent consumer survey that Niccol referenced on the call said Chipotle customers would return “at a similar or higher rate than before” once the pandemic eases enough to let dining rooms reopen. Given that, Niccol said he expects the company to continue expanding unit volume, margins, and store base in the long term.
If nothing else, Chipotle’s glowing reports of the last quarter illustrate why it’s so important now for restaurants to be running with a digital and off-premises strategy in place. For smaller businesses with shallower pockets, this of course throws a host of other issues on the table, paying third-party delivery commission fees being one of the ugliest. Smaller restaurants would also typically need to look to third-party platforms that can assist them with building and running the kind of mobile app that functions well, and also address the issue of customer data.
Right now, most restaurants are just struggling to keep the lights on. For those that manage, pulling from Chipotle’s digital playbook is a move worth considering in the longer term.