I walked into the Chipotle on Sunset in Hollywood on a recent Saturday at noon. The line was 15 deep. Normally a fast food line longer than three people sends me straight to the exit because I know what’s going to happen next.
At almost any other fast food place I would have to stand behind a series of customers who, even though they have had a few minutes to decide what to order, have no idea what they want. They had time to think about what to order while in line, in the car and at home. They’ve probably been to the restaurant before. They probably order the same thing every time.
Yet they stare at the menu the way archaeologists stared at the first cave paintings.
What…is Taco Bell…trying to say?!?
So I bolt because the ONLY benefit of fast food is that it’s fast. Patience, in this case, is not a virtue. Patience negates fast food’s only virtue, which is speed.
I remember reading a story about fast food restaurants that were putting cameras around the building to speed up ordering and I was like, “Yes! This is the greatest innovation in fast food history. Put one of these cameras at every fast food restaurant in the country. Let’s add some software that can guess, based on my sorry shape and body weight, which menu items I will pollute my body with so my food will be ready BEFORE I order it. Minority Report me, you magnificent bastards.”
If you’re like me, when you’re standing in line your mind is riddled with thoughts like “On my deathbed, will I be glad I waited in this line when I could have been making powerful love to my wife, writing a song or eating a nectarine while skipping through a field or something?” The answer is no, I will be sad on my deathbed that I wasted so much time standing in lines.
But that Steve Ells at Chipotle is a genius. He figured out how to do two very simple things that pretty much every other fast food chain in the world fails to do: feed people good food quickly.
Chipotle comes right at you with the marketing in the store. Our chickens are fed organic Alaskan salmon and Flintstone chewable children’s vitamins, bask in the sun on a local farm where they each have one acre of land to roam freely while playing the lute and are only marinated and grilled after they’ve died in heroic service to their country.
The all-natural approach works. This food is delicious, and it at least looks healthy.
The real genius is the line. Chipotle doesn’t play. It offers something like 1.2 menu items total. And you, you mouth-breathing troglodyte, will not hold up the line because four different employees are peppering you with simple yes/no questions about these few menu items, forcing you to do that which so many other fast food patrons refuse to do: decide.
Bowl? Burrito? Type of meat? Beans? Veggies? Salsa? Cheese? Chips? Drink? There is no time to dally. YOU MUST CHOOSE. This is exactly how speed dating should work. Occupation? Income? Rent? Own? Divorced? Kids? Hang-ups? Third date expectations? We need to Chipotle-ize everything.
The employees, and this is perhaps the most stunning part of the Chipotle miracle, appear to like their jobs. I think we can directly link this to the fact that Chipotle’s system of ordering minimizes employee contact with the public.
The public is like your cousin’s idiot boyfriend. If you’re around him all the time, all you would hear are his constant stories about how if he just had a little money he could open up a store that would “destroy Sharper image, bro.” But if you only see him around the holidays, he’s cool, because you’re like, “How’s that store coming, bro?” And then he’s pumped that you asked him and he says if he just had a little money he could really destroy Sharper Image, bro. Then you both chug beer and teach your 3-year-old nephew how to swear.
Limiting employee exposure to the public is the kindest gift a CEO can give.
There are other fast food restaurants that sort of get it right. In-N-Out has great food and the fun secret menu thing, but it moves slower than its competitors. Taco Bell is just right for when you’ve been drinking and you hate yourself and there is no one to fight in the parking outside the bar lot so screw it, let’s get some food. Subway had the keep-the-line-moving idea, but it ruined it with too many options and that scary 4-second industrial contraption that instantly nukes your food warm.
Chipotle figured it out. People will pay more for better food and convenience. And its employees will smile more the less they have to deal with any of us.