The burrito chain finally got serious about mobile ordering, and I’ll never stand in line again
As relationships go, the one between Chipotle and America started out nearly fairy tale-perfect, but life can be awfully difficult, fairy tales aren’t real, and you very likely know the whole story—the last few years, well, they haven’t been so great for the country's foremost burrito-related fast casual. After an admirably strong start, Chipotle had begun to drift within the marriage, becoming something of an ambivalent partner, giving even hardcore fans reason after reason to hit the bricks. Speaking for myself, too many visits a week eventually trickled down to one, which then turned into none; in 2017 and the first half of 2018, I can’t say I ate at Chipotle more than a handful of times. At least to me, it felt like things were falling apart, the company seemed forever stuck reacting to crisis after crisis. What a mess.
Last spring, things changed. Brian Niccol had been over at Taco Bell, doing little miracles, working to turn that brand into a millennial fave; then came word he’d take the helm at a struggling Chipotle. His can-do spirit and honesty appeared to please investors, and I probably wasn't the only consumer to be made the slightest bit reassured—suddenly, it felt like a grown-up was in charge. There had always been the nagging spectre of food borne illness to be concerned over, but there were other things that needed to be fixed, too—at a time when so many other chains had rather easily jumped most the hurdles necessary to streamline mobile ordering, Chipotle was stuck in the past. The app was nearly pointless; the pick-up process, beyond confusing. I found third party ordering, Postmates and the like, which lots of people use for their Chipotle orders, to be entirely erratic, which made the process far more stressful than it needed to be. Surely, things need not have been so difficult. Last fall, Niccol himself admitted that the number one thing people didn’t like about Chipotle was the fact that they didn’t have “convenient access” to Chipotle. No surprises there.
Help is on the way. As of a few months ago, in case you missed it, the Chipotle mobile ordering experience has been utterly transformed. The Taco Bell app—one of the finest in the business—this is not, at least not quite yet, but Chipotle’s app has been wildly improved, the user experience streamlined; customers are now entirely empowered to quickly and easily customize their order, making a reasonable number of additions, subtractions, and requests for extras per item—no more begging the unenthusiastic line worker for a bit more cheese, or whatever it is that makes you happy. As at Starbucks, mobile orders appear to be receiving priority, or, at the very least, they’re not being ignored, which makes for a nice change—recent orders from stores with lines out the door at lunch time were ready not only on time, but ahead of time, and everything was exactly as requested. Not only had the wait been eliminated, gone was the need to wonder how my terribly reasonable requests (salsa on the side) for customization are going to be received, on that particular visit. What could possibly go wrong?
A few things, actually. While enthusiasm for the better, faster mobile ordering is certainly real—promising statistics released by the company show this—there’s also a long way to go. The last reveal showed something like eleven percent of customers were utilizing mobile ordering in late 2018, and you don’t need an annual report to tell you that many of Chipotle’s 2,000-plus stores aren’t fully on board, just yet. For starters, there hasn’t been a chain-wide push to create dedicated, easy-to-access pick-up areas, as has been done at Panera Bread; this leaves Chipotle picker-uppers swimming upstream to the cashier, often interrupting already-tetchy customers who’ve waited in line for ten, fifteen minutes, to ask about their order, which sometimes has to be collected from the back. (On a recent visit, the cashier literally left the line to go see about my steak bowl; that can’t be right—also, I apologize to everyone standing in line at that particular Chipotle for extending their wait another 45 seconds, I realize that your lunch hour is valuable, and that time is money.)
Imperfections aside, all things considered, Chipotle appears to be back on track—the stock is back, they're introducing that new Lifestyle Bowls line, for healthier eaters. Sure, stores might still be closing, but plenty more are opening, elsewhere. They’re experimenting, they’re trying, that’s a good thing; they’ve been trialing a rewards program, which they definitely need, they brought back chorizo, at least for a while, that much-maligned queso tastes a little better these days, they’ve entered a closer partnership with one of the third party delivery services, DoorDash, and they’re tinkering around with the notion of drive-thrus. Hey, if Panda Express, with their nearly infinite number of possible combinations (not to mention items with a shorter lifespan on the steam table) can do drive-thru, so can Chipotle. In the meantime, I’m back, and pretty happy about it—steak, black beans and brown rice with plenty of that red tomatillo salsa on the side; for fast food on the fly, you can’t do much better.