Four pillars of wisdom

How Chipotle is going to serve burritos faster, and faster, and faster

January 31, 2014
January 31, 2014

Lines snaking out the door at lunchtime have long been a bottleneck to growth at US burrito chain Chipotle. But the company has a plan—a four-step plan, to be exact.

The chain managed to speed up service by six transactions per hour at peak times this past quarter (a significant increase compared to the mere two transactions per hour it added over the previous quarter). “We achieved our fastest throughput ever,” co-CEO Steve Ells said in an earnings call yesterday. But some of Chipotle’s fastest restaurants run more than 350 transactions per hour at lunchtime, more than three times the chain-wide average, the company told investors earlier this month. “We know we have a lot of room to get faster,” said Ells.

How? By emphasizing what the company calls its slightly Maoist-sounding “four pillars of great throughput.” These are:

“Expediters.” That would be the extra person between the one who rolls your burrito and the one who rings up your order. Her job? Getting your drink, asking whether your order is for here or to go, and bagging your food.

“Linebackers.” The people who patrol the countertops, serving-ware, and bins of food, so the ones who are actually serving customers never turn their backs on them.

Mise en place.” What in a regular restaurant means setting out ingredients and utensils ready for use means, in Chipotle’s case, zero tolerance for not having absolutely everything in place ahead of lunch and dinner rush hours.

“Aces in their places.” A commitment to having what each branch considers its top servers in the most important positions at peak times, so there are no trainees working at burrito rush hour.

“The most effective thing we’ve done to speed up throughput in the last couple years has been to implement what we call the four pillars of throughput,” Ells said.

Chipotle is also mulling incorporating a Starbucks-style mobile payment system (the chain already accepts online orders for pick-up), which the company is hopeful will help funnel customers in and out of its lines a bit faster. But the company is open to a number of other options, too, so long as they help speed up service. “We aren’t against taking a look at a new POS [point-of-sale, i.e., cash register] solution and there’s lots more that are out there,” Ells told investors yesterday.

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