Three lessons from the Chipotle iPhone app

How centralization, a defined use case, and a uniform menu shaped Chipotle's iPhone app

Chipotle iPhone appInstant access to burritos bigger than your head is the clear selling point of Chipotle’s iPhone app (iTunes link). But if we put culinary convenience aside, the app itself is an interesting mix of simple design, e-commerce functionality and location tools.

I’ve been digging into the app for a while (digging does not equal “eating,” in case you’re wondering), and I found three aspects to the app that could prove instructive for developers and businesses pursuing their own mobile paths.

1. Centralization

I asked, repeatedly and from a variety of angles, for revenue information related to the app — direct sales, percentage of total sales, etc. Chris Arnold, Chipotle spokesperson, politely declined to answer the money questions. The closest I could get was the total number of app downloads, which is currently at 600,000. And since Chipotle has around 1,000 restaurants, that’s considerable overlap.

Arnold did open up about the app’s integration into Chipotle’s ordering and payment processes. What I found most notable in this regard is the oddly detrimental role of franchises. The Chipotle app represents a case where corporate centralization led to a relatively painless product roll-out.

Here’s why: Chipotle owns all its restaurants, and Arnold credits this with allowing the iPhone app to mesh well — and quickly — with existing systems. “It can be hard to get all of your franchisees to participate in a new program like that, particularly if investments in technology or other infrastructure are necessary,” Arnold wrote in an email. Centralization ensures the Chipotle app works at all of the company’s restaurants.

Chipotle also benefitted from a pre-existing online ordering system. “If you don’t have that infrastructure in place when you start your work on an iPhone app, you’re going to be in trouble,” said Pervasent’s Stuart Williams, CEO of the development shop that handled the Chipotle app’s programming. “It’s certainly the case that mobile ordering follows in the footsteps of a decent web order.”

2. Defining the use case

Chipotle and its development partners constructed the app with a particular customer in mind: a young, urban professional who needs to grab lunch on the go. That’s not to say customers outside this very specific example are irrelevant; non-hipsters can benefit from the app as well. But this defined use case proved important during the development process because it led to functionality and conclusions. Here’s two examples:

  • Young professionals and iPhones go hand-in-hand, so the justification for creating the app is built in. It doesn’t make sense to develop an iPhone app — or any mobile app for that matter — if your customers don’t rely on app-friendly phones.
  • Since lunch is the primary meal in this use case, that means the customer is probably visiting a Chipotle restaurant near his/her office over and over again. As such, the app asks for and remembers location on the first launch, but subsequent location look-ups have to be initiated manually. This isn’t a “road warrior” app that automatically discovers nearby restaurants. It’s about defined, ongoing convenience.

3. Limited options

One final observation …

O'Reilly Where 2010 ConferenceIt would be tough to create a simple, easy-to-use mobile app that encapsulates the breadth of meals and ingredient variations at restaurants with long menus. A website can tackle this task, that’s for sure, but the mobile experience carries unique usability issues. Something as simple as going back and forth between screens can get real clunky, real fast on a small device. Chipotle’s menu, on the other hand, works well in the app world because it’s uniform and limited.

“The app is designed very much around their menu,” said Williams. “It’s not like you could take this app and service a white tablecloth restaurant. Or even service a Subway. A really well-designed app for Subway would work different than a really well-designed app for Chipotle.”

tags: , ,
  • Mark

    I think what you are saying is that it’s a well-designed app (and I would agree), but from my very un-scientific research I think a miniscule number of those 600000 downloads have been used to actually place an order. I have asked the 5 Chipotles that I frequent in the Denver area “how many iPhone orders do you get?”. The answer is always “A few, not many”. I suspect a good portion of those downloads are just curious iPhone users who are also Chipotle customers, and I’ll bet any serious iPhone developer has downloaded the app to just check out the UI design of the app. I am in both categories. I see no real usefulness to the app. I think the longest I’ve ever waited in line at a Chipotle is maybe 5 minutes. So it’s a nicely designed useless app! Oh, and Chipotle rocks!

  • Bakari

    Good review. I wrote a similar of the app a while back, and I agree developers could learn from it.

    I’m not sure how much the app is used, but at my local Chipotle, the line often gets very long on Friday and weekend evenings. So ordering food using the app definitely got me ahead of the crowd. However, almost each time I‘ve ordered food this way, my order was never ready when I arrived there at the assigned time. Each time, they have ended up giving a me a free drink for the wait.

    Not everyone cares about ordering food over the Internet, but it’s a service that more companies should make available for those of us who want the service.

  • Miles


    (At least where I live) Chipotle has no drive thru so this would make it closer to that experience. It essentially puts the menu and cruddy order speaker wherever you are, so you can buy on a whim and drive up and take your food.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Miles — Stuart Williams made a similar comparison during our conversation. Again, the use case informed the app: since Chipotle restaurants don’t have drive-thrus (none that he knew of), the app provides similar functionality to the “young urban professional on the go.”

  • brian d foy

    I’d really like to use the iPhone app for Chipotle, but it actually takes longer to use it and wait the requisite 30 minutes before it’s ready than just show up and stand in line. It might be useful for people who think about lunch a half hour before lunch, but adding “order lunch early” to my to do list is not that attractive.

  • zubair

    i think it is usefull for us ….

    ipod repair

  • tdog

    I think the idea of simple/minimal design for mobile is becoming less relevant as people use mobile phones as a primary computer. We used to say to clients that less is more, when referring to features. But I am seeing now examples of successful apps where more is more. There are a several highly rated apps in the app store, where large menu and product lists are easily browsed. And adding and deleting from a cart is possible. These apps have almost all the features of the full website crammed in, and it works well. While for chipotle a simple one use case app works nicely, for others, where multiple use cases are needed to to address the breadth of user scenarios and make the app useful, you need to cram it in, otherwise users will just use the website. More can be more.

  • Frank

    @tdog which apps are you speaking of in the app store?

  • Just came across this app actually. Only have about 4 downloaded on the phone and this made number 5 :) Chipotle and the iPhone, can’t go wrong with that! Have to agree with tdog, more is more nowadays on these crazy phones.