Chipotle continues to refine the science of burrito velocity

Hold on for your life.
Hold on for your life.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Another year, another breakthrough in Chipotle’s blinding burrito-making speed.

Over the first three months of 2014, the US Mexican-food chain saw an average increase of seven transactions per hour at both peak lunch and dinner hours—12 to 1pm and 6 to 7pm, respectively. On Fridays, one of its busiest days of the week, Chipotle fielded 11 more customers per hour at lunchtime on average across its stores, a roughly 10% increase.

“One important element of delivering great customer service is you’ve heard us say over and over is faster throughput,” co-CEO Monty Moran said in the company’s earnings call last week. “We’re excited that our teams are ready to break new throughput records.”

Another way to think about throughput is to think about it as burrito-velocity—that is, the speed it can funnel a customer and the burrito being made for them from the beginning of its line to its end. (Alongside burritos, the restaurants does also sell items like salads using mainly the same ingredients.)

Chipotle takes burrito-velocity very seriously. The chain puts every part of its assembly line under a microscope to make sure it functions as efficiently as possible. As far as the company is concerned, faster service is the same thing as better service. “I think the notion of fast throughput somewhat degrading the customer experience is wrong,” co-CEO Steve Ells told investors last week. “If you were to go survey everyone in our lines, they would all want faster throughput.”

For that reason, the chain is finicky about things Chipotle-lovers likely hardly even notice. Credit cards, for instance, are better than cash, because they’re faster. And that person who wanders around cleaning off counters and re-filling empty meat, vegetable, rice, and bean containers is crucial. In fact, she even has a title: linebacker.

Linebackers, who patrol countertops, replace serving-ware, and refill bins of food, are one of Chipotle’s four, Maoist-sounding pillars of effective lightning-speed service. The others, which together make up what the chain refers to as its “four pillars of great throughput,” include the extra person between the one who rolls your burrito and the one who rings up your order, a commitment to having every ingredient and utensil in its place, and finally, making sure its best servers are always working at peak hours.

Chipotle says those pillars are what’s helping increase the number of transactions it can handle. “Our restaurant teams have focused on great execution of what we call the four pillars of throughput which has once again led to record throughput during the season” Moran said last week. He added that Chipotle’s execution on those pillars has “improved from an average score of around 65% to 70% during the first review to over 90% during the most recent review.”

Some of Chipotle’s fastest restaurants currently run more than 350 transactions per hour at lunchtime, which equates to a ludicrous near-six transactions per minute. The nationwide average is currently somewhere between 110 and 120, according to Moran. But they’re getting faster, and faster, and faster. With summer approaching, the company will really get to put its latest burrito-velocity innovations to the test. “Now is when our peak season is descending upon, when we’ll be busier and we’ll have an opportunity to really, really hit the ball out of the park on these throughput numbers,” Moran told investors.