Monday, June 12, 2006

End of the line

I tried the future for lunch today, but found it to be a lukewarm burrito.

Yet I’m still lauding Chipotle Grill for making appreciable progress toward that Holy Grail of web-minded restaurant chains, online ordering. From the very moment Al Gore invented the internet, lunch-heavy concepts have eyed the medium as a way of churning more orders through their packed restaurants during the midday crunch. Yet only the last season of “The Sopranos” has generated as many so-what’s. The outlets learned the bottleneck wasn’t taking more orders, but fulfilling them, and online placement did nothing more than increase the backlog. Without a payback in saved time, web-surfing customers saw little benefit other than being able to order lunch while monitoring their eBay bids. They still had to contend with the throngs at the restaurant, which meant either waiting in line or drawing murderous stares from traditional customers gathering cobwebs in the queue.

Undaunted, Chipotle decided to take its stab at simultaneously boosting production and cutting wait times through online ordering. Even its online introduction of the service is unusual. When you’re visiting the website, as I was last night, looking to verify a fact about the chain, a foil-wrapped burrito floats zeppelin-like across the screen, emblazoned with the enticement, “DON’T STAND IN LINE/click here.”

Click on the flying burrito and you’re zapped to a screen introducing Chipotle DSL, defined as Don’t Stand in Line. The explanation of DSL amounts to nine words: “Now you can order online from your favorite Chipotle.” Truthfully, that wasn’t enough of an orientation for me; it wasn’t clear that I’d stumbled onto a page where I could enter an order by word of mouse. If I didn’t work for a restaurant publication, I doubt I would have gone any further.

But as a lapsed Chipotle customer who no longer goes there for lunch because of the time-zone-crossing line snaking up to the counter, I’m glad I did. After working my way through a fairly standard online registration form, I was invited to input my zip code, which gave me a list of nearby Chipotle units, or at least ones some wizard applet adjudged to be close. In reality, some of the cited stores were miles away, too far to hit even if I fired up a jet pack outside my building. But I did have a choice, so I found the outlet that is truly closest to me, and clicked on its street address. I could also specify the exact time I wanted to pick up my meal.

Finally, I got down to placing my order, first by selecting a bol (Chipotle-ese for “bowl”), and then transporting to a screen that depicted the chain’s behind-the-counter assembly line. By clicking on ingredients, I built my burrito-in-a-bowl, then perused other options, like sides and beverages. I also had the opportunity to compose any custom instructions or special requests.

At the end of that stage, I was given a number to call 10 minutes after placing the order online. An on-screen message warned that the order wouldn’t be prepared if I didn’t call.

So I did. The person who answered gave me the impression I was calling a general number for the store, not one reserved for cyber-patrons. She also instructed me to walk to an inside window when I visited the restaurant at my requested pick-up time.

Convinced the system wouldn’t work, I’d specified a time of 11:50, when the line presumably wouldn’t be too lengthy. If my online order had disappeared into the ether, or I had to wait in a queue to pay for it, at least I wouldn’t waste a half-century. The situation wouldn’t be a total disaster.

I got to the store exactly at my pick-up time, and found it already packed. Eighteen people were in the License Renewal-caliber line, and there seemed every certainty I’d be Number 19.

But then I spied it: A walk-up station far in the back, under a sign that read “Faxed-In Orders.” With only one customers waiting in front of it.

I headed back, teary-eyed with relief and joy. A minute and $7.38 later, I was out of there, though not without snagging a few die-a-painful-death stares from the people on line.

The burrito, which was taken already bagged from a holding cabinet, could have been much, much hotter. The paper sack that held it had been stapled shut, so I didn’t know to pick up disposable utensils on the way out.

But the experience was a good one, and that unit will get business from me specifically because of the online ordering option.

It’s not perfect. But Chipotle did squeeze at least one more order out of its lunch rush, with far more likely to follow.


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