October 21, 2020

Innovating during a pandemic: Chipotle connects with customers

This Avocado-pit-dyed sweatshirt was the first item in the Chipotle Goods collection to sell out — in less than 48 hours. The new collection received significant coverage across media in 891 outlets, resulting in 1.3 billion media impressions.

Restaurants in 2020 rely on technology as much as menu to provide guests with a unique experience. We connected with Nicole West, vice president of Digital Strategy and Product Management, and Stephanie Perdue, vice president of Brand Marketing for Chipotle Mexican Grill, to discuss menu and technology innovation during the pandemic. Chipotle operates 2,650 locations in the U.S. and Canada.

Q. COVID-19 hit the restaurant industry hard. How did Chipotle respond?
 West: Optimizing delivery and carry-out was key. In March, we introduced a series of innovations to the delivery and pick-up experience, including transforming our second make-lines into Digital Kitchens, which feature dedicated teams and ingredient stations to prepare digital orders. A new tracker feature in our app provides real-time meal delivery updates, and the app and our website now give customers the ability to leave special instructions for delivery drivers to limit direct contact.

Q. Did the pandemic change Chipotle’s menu innovation strategy?
Perdue: Instead of limiting menu offerings during COVID-19, Chipotle is exploring menu innovations that align with its “Food with Integrity” standards. We believe there’s a connection between how food is grown or raised and prepared, and how it tastes. We were one of the first national restaurant brands to commit to goals on local and organic produce and the first to commit to using only responsibly raised meat with some of the highest animal welfare standards.
     In alignment with this strategy, we began testing cilantro-lime cauliflower rice at more than 50 restaurants in Colorado and Wisconsin in July. We also launched new lemonades, aguas frescas, and teas from Tractor Beverage Co. that are non-GMO and certified organic across the U.S. and Canada.

Q. How did the pandemic change how Chipotle connects with customers through food and technology?
A.  West: We're working to integrate everything fans love about Chipotle into our app. An example would be our Complete Customization feature that allows users to enter the nuances of their favorite orders digitally by making any ingredient light, standard or extra.
     When the pandemic hit, we were in the process of testing partnerships with Uber Eats and Grubhub, so we decided to accelerate those connections to accommodate guests who were spending more time at home. With off-premises sales growing more than 200% year-over-year and accounting for 60% of total sales in Q2, it’s clear that digital offerings are resonating with fans. We’ll continue to leverage new insights about post-COVID-19 consumer behavior to meet guests where they are on the other side to identify the best ways to increase access to our brand.

Q. Chipotle also launched a clothing line made with avocado pits? How does this innovation play into Chipotle’s food and technology vision?
A. Perdue: Our Chipotle Goods collection features an open-looped line of Chipotle apparel which is dyed with upcycled avocado pits from our restaurants. Open-looped means that we are taking a waste product from our restaurants and incorporating it back into a new product.
     We have an aggressive goal for keeping waste out of the landfill — 50% diversion — so we’re continuing to explore innovative ways to divert it. Gloves to bags, a program that diverts our plastic gloves from landfills and upcycles them into plastic trash bags, which we then use in our restaurants, was one of our first attempts at “open-looping.” The avocado pit-dye collection is another way we are trying to repurpose our waste.