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Can you actually get excited about buying a burrito in an app? Chipotle hopes so.

Chipotle CTO Curt Garner on how coronavirus has put a heightened focus on digital ordering and delivery — something the company was already ready for.

A woman wearing a mask walking out of a Chipotle in San Francisco

Online ordering has skyrocketed from about 20% of Chipotle's regular business to around 70% at its peak during the pandemic.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The pandemic has forced most businesses to rethink how they serve their customers, but one thing that definitely hasn't changed after all these months in lockdown is that people love burritos.

Over the last few years, Chipotle has been doubling down on improving the experience for people ordering from its restaurants. For rather obvious reasons, that's partly meant an increased focus on food safety and health measures, as well as streamlining the digital ordering and delivery processes. In the middle of a pandemic, both of those efforts have proven particularly useful for Chipotle. Curt Garner, Chipotle's CTO, told Protocol that online ordering has skyrocketed from about 20% of the company's regular business to around 70% at its peak during the pandemic.

Garner, who joined Chipotle five years ago and took over as CTO in 2018 after a long stint at Starbucks, said that food is always going to be a large part of people's lives, and technology needs to rise to serve however they want to get it. "Sometimes it's fuel, sometimes it's the best part of your day," he said.

Protocol spoke with Garner about how the restaurant experience is likely to change as a result of the pandemic, but how that probably won't mean digital kiosks at every restaurant or drive-thrus forever.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Part of your focus since taking over as CTO has been on a push for more digital products, like Chipotle's rewards program and mobile sales. Do you feel like, had you not already been working on these initiatives, that you'd have been scrambling a lot more during the pandemic?

Well, certainly, the thing that's unique about Chipotle in our space is that we're not a franchise operation. The fact that we own and operate all of our restaurants has enabled us to kind of think about the future and race to meet it in a unique way.

When we started building out our digital footprint, we did it knowing that we needed to pull that digital experience all the way through the restaurant. And as part of that, we built dedicated make lines, what we call our digital kitchen, in every one of our restaurants, with the idea that orders were coming in from outside the restaurant would not be interrupted by the lines inside, and we wouldn't have guests standing in the line of a restaurant and being told to wait while our crew assembled orders for the digital channels. That was a multiyear investment, not just from the technology standpoint, but physically building out those digital kitchens, training our crews, putting all of those processes and tools in place. And we were done.

Coming into this pandemic, we had crews that were equipped and trained and all the technology in place, so it was, I wouldn't say business as usual, certainly — volumes on that channel accelerated from what had been 20% of our business to close to 70% at the peak. But everything was in place to execute it.

We've seen a whole lot of new people over the last couple of months come in and try us for the first time and then come back again and again. And we call it a flywheel. It starts to feed itself: great food, combined with access, combined with a rewards platform, with world-class marketing and engagement, it starts to feed itself.

I've got to believe that, during a pandemic, when people can't go into stores, that rewards programs, digital and CRM are really important. Is any of the tech you're relying on now informing how things will be when people start going back to businesses more frequently? Do you think that the physical experience will change as a result of what's happening in digital right now?

I think the best technologies are the ones that enhance the human experience, not take away from it or not sterilize it. Food and culture around the world continues to hold a special place in terms of ritual and celebration. Sometimes it's fuel, sometimes it's the best part of your day.

Looking long term, as we think about a rewards platform, it's really not about transactions. For us, it's about building affinity, love and engagement. And a lot of people want to feel connected to something that is bigger than themselves, represents their own personal values, [such as] ethical treatment of animals and sourcing real ingredients, being very responsible for the environment. All of those things together are the things that I think that are attracting people to brands and they want to find ways to become more connected and engaged. We're certainly seeing that with our guests now, and people that are coming into the platform.

The pandemic certainly created moments of isolation, but also I think moments where people discovered new ways to connect and engage with one another. While I certainly can't tell you for sure what the new normal will be, I do think there are going to be occasions where people want to gather and go eat in a community. I think there's also going to be occasions where people want to continue to eat at home and not be around people. And it's our job to make sure that each experience is everything that it should be. I know that our food, our sourcing and our preparation, the culture that we're creating: Those continue to be the things that will define the company. I like to think that the technology and the rewards platform are things that just turbocharged those human experiences.

Do you think people's ordering and eating habits are going to change for good as a result of the pandemic? Are you going to start putting kiosks in your restaurants?

We've been thinking about how we evolve the physical restaurants for a while. This idea of a digital kitchen dedicated to out-of-restaurant ordering was not created because of a pandemic. It was more around understanding where customers are going and that people want more access and things that are personal to them. I don't personally feel that kiosks is the way to go, because you're asking somebody to touch something that other people have touched. I think this idea of personal space is going to continue to be important. And then most people are walking around with a kiosk in their hand right now that they're comfortable with and they know where it's been.

If you'd told me 15 years ago that we would still have movie theaters, I would have thought that was impossible. There's still something about being there, at a sporting event or a concert, in these places where people gather in communities. I still think there's going to be those moments where kids want to meet after school and be together and eat together, or work colleagues want to go grab lunch, and having it delivered and eating at your desk isn't going to feel the same as being on a patio in the spring day in New York.

So will it tilt more towards at-home across many channels like grocery delivery, food delivery, prescription delivery? I think, yeah: I think people that haven't tried those channels before and now have during this crisis, that it'll add an occasion, a point of access or an answer to a problem they may be having. Two years from now, if you have the flu, you're probably going to work from home, instead of saying it's just a cold and going to the office, and how that then pivots around your needs while you're at home. Through all of the brands and the companies that you interact with, I think technology is going to continue to race to fill that gap.

How has delivery been working for Chipotle? Has there been any scale issues during the pandemic?

We haven't experienced any yet. We're in this fortunate position where our delivery business was, before the pandemic, growing so rapidly that I would describe it like ride-share workers circling the airport: We've had drivers circling Chipotle knowing that they're going to get multiple orders that are going to come in at any moment.

Historically, when we talked to our partners, they told us that delivery was pretty light at lunch and heavy in the evening. And we started changing that, I think across the industry, where all of a sudden a courier at night now had the option to start working during the day. We track this very closely, and we're still under 30 minutes average delivery time across all our partners. So we haven't seen the bottleneck. I think they've seen some ride-share drivers that now aren't nearly as busy start becoming couriers as well, and I think that's helped alleviate the bottleneck.

Chipotle CTO Curt GarnerImage: Chipotle

Has that led you to reconsider about the structure of the restaurants themselves at all? I know you have delivery, but if you have a store with dozens of couriers hanging outside waiting for an order, surely that's going to disrupt the flow of things?

One of the things we're most excited about is a newer format that we announced about two years ago, called Chipotlanes. It's kind of the drive-thru reimagined. There's no speaker box, or joining a queue, order and pull up to a window. It's all an access point for order-ahead. And those restaurants are opening at higher volumes than a standard Chipotle, and they're seeing a really big index into the pickup business — not delivery. And as we're going through restaurant redesign and remodels, we're thinking, it's not an exaggeration to say daily, [about] our consumer habits, how [they're] shopping, what are the expectations, and how do we remove friction from all of those journeys. So for the customer that can't or chooses not to get out of their car, but doesn't want delivery, because they're going from point A to point B or picking something up on the way home, the ability to do a rapid reorder on the app and swing by — our average window time is under 12 seconds ‚ it's the fastest way to get Chipotle.

That's an example of how we're rethinking the physical restaurants. Within the last two years, just installing dedicated pickup shelves for orders was part of that change. It seems like a simple thing to do, but when we do things like that, we have to analyze how people are walking in the door to approach the frontline, how people will be walking in the door to get pickup. On a restaurant-by-restaurant basis, we looked at those flows and made decisions on how we could direct the traffic so that people weren't bumping into each other. And it's kind of an example of getting lucky the way the pandemic has changed behavior. But those are the types of things that we look at and have to continue to look at. And frankly, our customers are highly engaged, and they're letting us know, and that's been a big help as well.

It's interesting that Chipotle is pushing ahead with both Chipotlanes and traditional in-store dining. It seems like a lot of companies right now are either focusing for the long term on making restaurants safer, or shifting to something like cloud kitchens or pickup-only. Is this a hedge by Chipotle, or do you see that bifurcation as the future of dining?

It's certainly not a hedge. I think it's more within our culture; our CEO has brought a focus on access. And we've looked at what are all the ways, and all of the occasions and all of the places that people want their Chipotle fix, and how do we show up in all of these places to meet the need, and not create frustration? So we're going to continue to build restaurants that have a front line and have dining and patio seating, we're going to continue to build Chipotlanes where people can go inside and have that experience or pickup.

I think you'll see us continue to evolve our restaurant formats and in different ways for different geographies and need sets. You could imagine in New York City, maybe there's [a] pickup-only restaurant at some point. In some places, maybe Chipotlane-only makes sense. I don't think anything's off the table there. But we're certainly not saying we're going to remove part of our experience because there's a group of people that that's the experience that they love. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in London.

When you would go in on a Sunday morning to some of the French bakeries, did you know what you wanted in advance, or did you kind of shop with your eyes at the pastry case and smell everything being baked?

Definitely the latter.

Well, there are a lot of people at Chipotle that walk in and they hear the chicken on the plancha, and they smell the adobo. They know they want Chipotle, but they make up their mind looking through the pastry glass — it's not pastry, but looking into the glass at the food and smelling the smells and interacting with the crew. That's a really important part of our experience. And there are people that know exactly what kind of burrito and salad or bowl they want, or they want to experiment digitally and we're there for them as well.

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