Chipotle Mexican Grill’s heavy investments in tech and mobile ordering are paying off during the pandemic: the burrito purveyor on Wednesday announced plans to build up its drive-thru lanes dedicated to picking up mobile orders.
As the COVID-19 outbreak hit the U.S. this spring, many Chipotle customers switched to using the quick-service restaurant chain’s mobile app, which experienced an 80% surge in orders during the first quarter. The app has remained popular even as in-restaurant dining and ordering has re-opened in some ares, with many customers still uncomfortable with entering restaurants.
In response, Chipotle has shifted some of its focus on building out its drive-thru business to lanes exclusively dedicated to picking up mobile orders— spaces the company calls “Chipotlanes.” Later this month, the company will hit the milestone of 100 restaurants with the mobile pick-up lanes.
“Customers want convenience and appreciate the ability to personally retrieve their orders without leaving their car,” Scott Boatwright, chief restaurant officer, said in a statement. The so-called Chipotlanes require additional staffing and the company said it intends to hire 10,000 more workers in the coming months to support them and other initiatives.
In May, the company kicked off a hiring campaign, leading to the hiring of 8,000 people. In a sign of just how weak the job market has become, Chipotle says it has received close to 700,000 job applications this year.
Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol told Fortune in May that at the height of the lockdowns in the spring, some 70% of orders were being placed digitally, up from 20% before the crisis, adding that he believed digital orders would ultimately stabilize at around 40%. Starbucks, whose mobile app is widely regarded as an industry leader, has also reported a higher percentage of sales from mobile orders compared to before the pandemic even as its cafes have reopened.
Before the onset of COVID-19, Chipotle had planned to open 150 to 165 new restaurants, net of any closings, in 2020, about half of which would have Chipotlanes. The company withdrew that estimate because of uncertainty. But when it does resume new store openings, more than 60% of those location are expected to include Chipotlanes. Chipotle currently operates 2,600 stores in the U.S. and other markets.
Another key initiative that predates the pandemic but is proving extremely helpful given new customers habits: Chipotle has set up “digital kitchens” to speed up the preparation of mobile orders in most restaurants. These kitchens consist of a separate area dedicated solely to online orders, while in-store orders are prepared before the customer from behind plexiglass separators.
More must-read retail coverage from Fortune:
- How Goodwill is reinventing itself to ride the pandemic resale wave
- Pop-up retail was made for the pandemic
- How Ben & Jerry’s activist history allows it to call out white supremacy and police brutality
- E-book reading is booming during the coronavirus pandemic
- How Chipotle’s past food crises prepared it for the COVID-19 outbreak