As restaurants slowly reopen with reduced capacity and more emphasis on takeout orders, one thing we will see more of is restaurant chains using tech to better customize meals purchased through mobile apps. So it should come as little surprise that Chipotle, a company known for its digital-forward business model, just released a bunch of new customization features to its app that effectively recreate the assembly line experience customers get in brick-and-mortar locations. The company announced today its Complete Customization Chipotle app, which lets customers get pretty granular about ingredient preferences and portions in their meals.
To be clear, Chipotle hasn’t released a brand-new app; all updates are to its existing one, and nothing’s changed about the way customers sign in and access menus, loyalty points, etc. Changes are more about the way customers select and customize their meals in the digital format, which Chipotle seems to hope will mirror the real world experience as much as possible.
Chipotle’s in-store format has always involved customers moving down an assembly line-style setup, dictating to staff what they want in their burritos and/or bowls, how much they want of each ingredient, and any other special instructions. The setup has always made it super-easy to customize a meal — at least, so long as you ordered that meal in the store. Up to now, the Chipotle app has been somewhat limited in terms of customization.
The features released today change that. Customers can now swipe left and right in the app to designate how much of each ingredient they want with their meal. For example, meat portions can be single or double and ingredients like salsa and sour cream can be “normal,” “light,” or “heavy.” In general, the app is now just easier to use.
While on the surface these might appear to be small changes, they actually suggest how certain restaurant types could survive in a post-pandemic restaurant industry. Per state reopening guidelines, person-to-person contact should be minimal as possible, and long lines of people waiting for their turn at the assembly station will be frowned upon if not outright banned. Offering the digital equivalent will let customers order exactly what they’re used to getting from the chain while still satisfying the requirements for social distancing.
Digitizing the assembly line is also a way for Chipotle to drive more orders to its app, which is important for a company with a future tightly tied to its digital business. That digital business surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2019, and Chipotle has also recently introduced new store formats (walk-up locations, drive-thru lanes) that lend themselves to digital and off-premises ordering. The pandemic hasn’t slowed that growth. Chipotle reported its highest quarterly level ever for digital sales on its Q1 2020 investor call in April. “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,” Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said on the call.
Advanced customization tools at QSRs and fast-casual restaurants have been a priority for some time now, with some chains — McDonald’s, Starbucks — implementing AI tools to improve personalization. But using customization to recreate in-store experiences that might otherwise go the wayside could be where customization proves itself most valuable. It’s easy to imagine chains like Subway or Blaze Pizza increasing the customization capabilities of their apps to recreate their own assembly line experiences. It might even breathe a little life back into the buffet, which is dying a painful death at the moment, by making the self-service aspect of that format virtual.
All those things cost money, which restaurants don’t have a lot of right now. Any mobile restaurant app is expensive to build in house; including sophisticated customization tools would be prohibitive for most businesses, which creates an opportunity for restaurant tech companies looking to prove their own worth in these uncertain times.