Chipotle’s New Digital Kitchen Positions It for the Post-Pandemic World

Dining patterns learned during Covid are likely to be permanent, fast-casual chain says

chipotle digital kitchen
The Digital Kitchen has everything a regular Chipotle does—except for a place to sit down and eat. Chipotle

It’s hard to imagine a better market for Chipotle than 4,400 young men and women, aged 17-23, famished after a regimen of running, swimming and lifting weights. But that’s the band of regulars who’ll soon be lining up at the fresh-Mex chain’s newest location just outside the gates of the United States Military Academy in Highland Falls, New York—better known as West Point.

There is, however, a catch: Chipotle will not be giving any of its latest customers a place to eat.

The new restaurant goes by the name Chipotle Digital Kitchen and will traffic in to-go and delivery orders only. There are no tables and chairs in the place, only a handful of stools near the counter for those waiting to pick up their orders and head home.

In announcing the prototype, Chipotle corporate admitted that it chose Highland Falls, located 57 miles north of New York City, because “over 90% of our audience is captive with cadets.” It’s wording that might sound ominous were we not in the throes of a pandemic. But of course, we are, and building a model that caters to young people essentially trapped in dormitories is a timely move for the 2,600-unit chain.

But the Chipotle Digital Kitchen has been on the drawing board for quite some time and, as such, it’s also evidence of a brand looking well past 2021 or even 2022 and toward a future when the dining scene is likely to be very different.

“As part of our objective to make Chipotle more accessible and convenient, the digital kitchen has been an integral part of our innovation pipeline prior to the pandemic,” global chief development officer Tabassum Zalotrawala told Adweek.

The fast-casual chain has retained all the signature elements of its traditional restaurants, especially the open kitchen.

Chipotle is hardly the first company to tinker with a takeout-only concept. Since Covid-19 began locking down various parts of America earlier this spring, there’s been a steady emergence of “ghost kitchens,” “virtual restaurants” and “dark kitchens.”

They’ve sprouted up in cities across the country, from Saucy Asian in San Francisco to Reef’s Neighborhood Kitchens in 18 different metro areas. Chicken-wing colossus Wingstop opened its first virtual restaurant at the end of June and, last month, the Famous Dave’s barbecue chain granted franchisee Bluestone Hospitality Group a license to serve its menu items on a takeout-only basis from the kitchens of its Johnny Carino’s and Granite City locations.

Celebrities have gotten in on the ghost kitchen trend, too. There’s Hotbox by Wiz, a Nextbite concept developed with recording artist Wiz Khalifa; and star chef Daniel Boulud, whose new Daniel Boulud Kitchen bills itself as “a new delivery experience” that allows New Yorkers to “bring Daniel Boulud home.”

Setting aside the obvious fact that millions of Americans are too fearful to dine out (or are legally prohibited from doing so), the economic advantages of a ghost kitchen are many, from labor savings to menu flexibility and letting delivery apps do some of the marketing work.

Chipotle stands to reap those benefits, of course, but its Digital Kitchen also positions the company for expansion in a post-pandemic country. Even with the devaluation of commercial real estate in major cities, rents at large, sidewalk-level spaces—especially in high-traffic downtown locations—are likely to remain expensive. A downsized Chipotle will improve the brand’s economies of scale and open up location possibilities that simply weren’t feasible for a full-sized restaurant.

Not long ago, a fast-casual concept might have been fearful of scuttling its seating area, but the pandemic has normalized grab-and-go dining to such a degree that Chipotle is betting that the change is permanent. “We expect pandemic-inspired behaviors like increased reliance on digital will stick post-pandemic,” Zalotrawala said.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.