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Line-Busting, Internet Style

Line-Busting, Internet Style

PICK AND CLICK: Chipotle's online ordering system helps customers avoid lines and recreates the in-person ordering experience.

Having people lined up to buy food from your restaurant is the best problem an operator can have. But it still qualifies as a problem—a big one if you're a fast casual restaurant and long lines continually make the customer experience not only less than fast, but often downright slow.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is tapping into online ordering technology to solve this issue for its 460 units.

It's not as if Chipotle staffers can't dish up the chain's salads, bols, tacos and signature burritos fast enough. The issue relates to the chain's serving format, which requires customer interaction at each step of the assembly process.

It's no big deal for many Chipotle customers—especially repeat customers who have their meal's composition preplanned in their head before ordering. But for many other customers...let's just say the speed of their decision-making lags behind that of the staff's ability to put the order together.

If you've been in a busy Chipotle unit—i.e., most of them—you know that even one indecisive dawdler is enough to gum up the works.

What to do? The company already had a fax program in place that enabled customers to send in orders ahead of time and pick them up at the cashier. But long lines still prevailed. It was enough of a problem that Chipotle hired Xylem Interactive to come up with what the chain calls its "DSL" (Don't Stand in Line) online ordering system.

It works like this: Customers sign into Chipotle's web page, then specify at which unit and at what time they'd like to pick up their order. They are then directed to an interactive visual replica of the Chipotle serving line, where they build their meal. When the order is complete, the customer is given a phone number to confirm the order, then picks it up at the designated time by going directly to the cashier.

The key is the look and feel of the ordering experience. It's not the typical "shopping cart" approach. "We wanted to make it as much like being in a Chipotle-restaurant as possible, minus the wait," says founder/ CEO Steve Ells. "Ordering food isn't like ordering DVDs. It's more of a sensory, personal experience, and we wanted to recreate that online."

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