Chipotle executives are warming up to the idea of drive-thru service after more than two decades of rejecting the fast-food staple.
The company appears to be having a change of heart after launching its first drive-thru service at Tasty Made, Chipotle's newly opened burger restaurant in Lancaster, Ohio, according to Nomura Instinet analyst Mark Kalinowksi.
The drive-thru now accounts for more than half of the restaurant's business, and that's not going unnoticed by Chipotle's management team, Kalinowksi said.
"Historically, and unsurprisingly in this context, Chipotle has generally been anti-drive-thru," Kalinowski wrote in a note to clients.
But at a recent meeting with Chipotle management at the new Tasty Made restaurant, Kalinowski was told that "Chipotle management who have visited the Tasty Made restaurant may have had their eyes opened somewhat about the convenience a drive-thru can offer some types of customers (for example, a parent with multiple young children)."
Customers of the Tasty Made have also been inquiring about whether Chipotle will add drive-thru service.
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"Apparently quite a few Tasty Made customers who are aware of the burger unit's connection to Chipotle have been asking, 'So, is Chipotle going to get drive-thru?'" Kalinowski wrote.
Chipotle did not respond to a request for comment.
"Perhaps Tasty Made's creation is the first step in a process that could lead to brand Chipotle testing this store format," Kalinowski wrote. "Chipotle may find out (as Starbucks did) that drive-thru units work for it (excellent returns, higher customer satisfaction, etc.)"
Drive-thru service is a huge source of business for fast-food chains. At McDonald's, drive-thru reportedly accounts for as much as 70% of business.
Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells has floated the idea of adding drive-thru windows in the past, but at the time he said it could detract from the customer experience.
"In sort of expanding the Chipotle concept as we go to new markets, the question always comes up, should we try one with a drive-thru?" Ells said during an October 2012 call with analysts. "And part of what customers love is the ability to customize... And a drive-thru distances them from that. So it doesn't seem like for the majority of our customers it's something that would be relevant."
"That being said, it's certainly something that we could try in the future," he added.
Adding drive-thru service would likely only be a possibility at standalone Chipotle restaurants, and even then, pretty significant changes to the restaurant infrastructure would have to be made.
But with the company's sales still in a slump following last year's E. coli outbreak, Chipotle is testing all kinds of new ways to attract customers, such as offering free food coupons and adding new things like dessert to the menu.
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