The National Restaurant Association recently reported that about 10 percent of U.S. restaurant customers ordered meals online last year -- a figure that's predicted to explode as more spots (both chains and independents) adopt the technology.
At the head of the learning curve is Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill, which launched its online service in January. Called DSL -- short for "Don't Stand in Line" -- the system uses flash technology and a sense of humor to provide almost the same personalized service you might find inside one of the chain's 20 Northeast Ohio locations.
It sounds straightforward enough: Go to www.chipotle.com and order from the comfort of your keyboard, bypass the sometimes interminable line at the counter, and return home with your football-sized consumable before the barbacoa's cold.
It should only be so simple.
We tried it twice, with mixed results at best. Among the major variables that affect the process: the time of day, how far you are from your Chipotle of choice, and your ability to multitask. With our home office a mere five minutes from the nearest Chipotle, the old-fashioned process can hardly be improved upon: At least during non-peak times, 15 minutes is about all it takes to drive over, place an order, and get back.
Our online-ordering experiences, by comparison, took nearly twice that long -- mostly because Chipotle's DSL comes with two major bottlenecks: First, it requires you to confirm your order by phone, 10 minutes after placing it online. According to Chipotle web guru Joe Stupp, this enforced delay ensures time for the order's transmission and reception. Even worse, the system doesn't accept online payment, so you're still stuck waiting at the register to pay once you get there. (Stupp cites online-security concerns, though he says that electronic payment may eventually be an option.)
But if the nearest Chipotle is more than 10 minutes away and you order during peak meal times, DSL may be your friend. Already, says Stupp, more than 11,000 Clevelanders have used the service.
As for us? We're holding out for the day we can place our online order and count to 10, then retrieve our fresh burrito from the replicator unit. Now that's what we call a time-saver.