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Breaking Down the Burrito Assembly Line: How Mexican Chains Create Efficient Ordering Experiences


Photo from Taco Bros Restaurant

Chipotle and Subway lead the way in efficiency on the assembly line. Using the highly customizable assembly line, Chipotle has become one of the most successful restaurant chains of the last decade.

Chipotle recently posted annual revenue of nearly $9 billion, a 15% increase year over year. And the brand’s growth has been impressively steady since 2010, when it started to rapidly expand across the U.S.

Since Subway changed the sandwich game with its customizable subs, assembly lines have reshaped the ordering and service experience at numerous chains.

It’s a model with huge potential, not just for large chains, but for regional groups and independent Mexican restaurants. If you can nail assembly line efficiency, you’ll be able to serve more customers at the busiest times while offering them a better experience.

We took a closer look at how Chipotle and other leading chains organize their assembly lines and discovered the surprisingly simple secret behind their success.

In this article, we cover:

  • How a Mexican burrito assembly line works
  • What you can learn about efficiency from Chipotle, Qdoba, and Subway
  • How to put these lessons into practice for your burrito brand

By the end, you’ll be ready to set up the staff training, production processes, and tech tools needed to dramatically improve assembly line efficiency and grow your revenue.

What Does the Assembly Line Look Like?

Typically, at a chain like Chipotle or Subway, the assembly line runs along the counter, but it can also be at the back or inside a closed kitchen. 

Staff put prepared ingredients in containers along the line, visible to customers within an open-top refrigerated service counter. Servers pass each burrito down as the customer orders fillings. The packing and payment station is at the end of the line, where employees add sides, drinks, and extras to each order and take payment. 

How the Assembly Line Works at Chipotle

Chipotle built its success on an efficient assembly line and managed to achieve the seemingly impossible—fast food with freshly prepared ingredients. 

Let’s look at how Chipotle runs the line.

As customers approach the counter, the menu is displayed above the assembly line, offering burritos, bowls, tacos, and salads and explaining what goes inside. 

The assembly line is organized intentionally to match the order that people ask for various ingredients:

  • Tortilla or bowl — At Chipotle, you choose from a burrito, bowl, tacos, or salad. There is a small grill at the start of the line where the first employee warms the tortilla. 
  • Rice and beans —Next, staff use large spoons to dole out a 4 oz portion of rice and/or beans onto the tortilla, taco, or bowl.
  • Meat or protein — The rice and beans are topped with 4 oz portions of grilled chicken, steak, pork carnitas, or braised tofu. Double meat incurs an additional charge.
  • Sauce and toppings — Choose to add 4 oz of mild, medium, or hot salsa and/or sour cream. Add 4 oz of guacamole for an extra charge.
  • Cheese and salad Cheese and lettuce or other salad items pinched on top in 1 oz portions.
  • Sides and drinks The finished bowl or burrito is wrapped in foil and handed to the “expeditor,” who labels it and puts it on a tray or in a bag. He provides a cup for self-service drinks and adds any extras you want, like chips or a cookie.
  • Packing and payment — You pay for your meal at the final stop on the line. To keep the line moving as fast as possible, Chipotle uses a POS system with a touchscreen that can quickly handle contactless payments.

Discover how HungerRush 360 gives your assembly line added speed and efficiency.

How to Maximize Efficiency on the Assembly Line 

Incentivize Managers to Enforce Rigorous Standards

Chipotle famously uses a rigorous 39-point checklist to ensure its stores are up to standard. The chain rewards high-performing managers with the title of ‘restaurateur’, which comes with a healthy salary of more than $100,000, plus a $10,000 bonus every time one of their employees becomes a general manager.

To put that in perspective, the average salary for a fast food manager in the U.S. is around $45,000.

This management incentive scheme is designed to ensure all teams are motivated and high-performing. Chipotle bosses believe it’s a huge driver of success for the ever-growing brand.

When you look at the control points that the restaurateurs are judged upon, you get an idea of how effective this approach can be at keeping up speed and efficiency on the assembly line. 

Notably, the checklist strongly discourages three key thingsHere are three points on the checklist that restaurateurs are encouraged not to let happen:

  • Allowing lLow performers toare allowed to remain on a team, disincentivizing the rest of the team.
  • Not taking the proper time to onboard nNew employees are not being set up for success in the restaurant with proper training and guidance.
  • Failing to conduct one-on-one conversations between managers and employees.Managers are not sitting down regularly with their crew people to have one-on-one  conversations.

With teams across the chain motivated to implement these high standards every day, customers get a better experience no matter which store they order at.

Simple, Yet Customizable Menu

The assembly line model works best with a simple but highly customizable menu. Even though there are just a few choices to make, customers can create thousands of combinations.

At Chipotle, it’s as simple as burritos, bowls, salads, and tacos. Customers can ditch the tortilla or add different toppings and sides to get exactly what they want.

The simple menu helps Chipotle be more precise in what it produces. When you have fewer items to prepare, you can limit waste and prepare fresh ingredients closer to the time they will be eaten, rather than bringing in frozen food prepared elsewhere.

Chipotle’s menu has hardly changed since the first restaurant opened. The braised tofu option is one of the only major additions. McDonald’s, an early investor, reportedly wanted Chipotle to offer specials and breakfast, but founder Steve Ells was adamant that the menu remain the same so as not to dilute the brand and overcomplicate operations.

A totally stripped-back menu isn’t the only way to go though. Qdoba offers breakfast and a wider range of dishes, plus special additions like the seasonal mango salsa.

Both chains use a limited number of prepared ingredients in many combinations to offer a wider range of options, while keeping the ingredient preparation and assembly on the line simple and efficient.

Optimized Staff Setup

Getting your staffing levels right is a key part of assembly line success. The goal is to have the optimal number of staff working to keep the line moving and have enough prep to keep the ingredients topped up.

Get this wrong and you’re either paying staff to stand around doing nothing, or you start running out of fillings, slowing down the line and disappointing customers.

Chipotle has mastered the balance with a well-thought-out setup. Along with the two to three employees working the line assembling orders, Chipotle deploys extra help to keep things moving.

  • The Expeditor A member of staff dedicated to bagging orders and getting sides and drinks right before the cashier. 
  • The Cashier One team member working the POS system punching in orders and taking payments.
  • The Linebacker A dedicated team member refilling the containers on the assembly line so customer flow isn’t disrupted at peak times.

Chipotle encourages managers to put the best employees in the appropriate positions at the busiest times to keep the line moving as quickly as possible—and give customers the best ordering experience.

Fresh Ingredients Prepared Every Day

McDonald’s serves customers fast by preparing a lot of its food off-site. Fries come into the restaurants already sliced and partially cooked, and are fried throughout the day. Burgers come frozen. They are cooked throughout the day and held in hot drawers for speedy service. But, despite the speedy service, the mega-brand isn’t known for the freshness of its food.

Chipotle built its success on repeat business and word of mouth, hardly spending any money on advertising. One of the main reasons people come back is that its restaurants use fresh ingredients and make the key components in-store.

Chipotle and Subway both prepare salads on-site every day. And Chipotle goes a step further, making its guacamole fresh multiple times a day and grilling its meats in-store as needed.

This fresh preparation makes all the difference to the taste of the finished product. The secret to delivering tasty food at speed is to get in early to prepare everything from scratch so that assembly is lightning fast. 

Focus on the Details

A huge part of implementing an efficient assembly line is ensuring staff are fully trained and motivated to deploy the nitty-gritty details every single day. 

Chipotle drills fine-tuned practices into its team members to improve the experience for both customers and staff:

  • Keep the Line Neat, Tidy, and Efficient Place serving spoons with the handles in the same direction to keep the line looking neat and make it easier for the next person to grab the spoon.
  • Options for Customers Who Want Just a Little Bit More — If people ask for more meat, give the option of a little more for free or to pay extra for double meat. This keeps customers happy without eating too far into your margins.
  • Offer a Human Touch — Efficient assembly lines can feel robotic. Chipotle staff are trained to maintain eye contact with customers to make them feel welcome and gauge whether they are happy with the experience.
  • Keep the Line Moving with Proper Portion Control Staff are trained to grab cheese and lettuce with three fingers to control portion sizes and hold the spoon low on the handle for more control. Keeping portions consistent helps reduce complaints from customers who might otherwise feel shortchanged.

These may seem like small points but they help maintain consistency across stores. Together they produce a far better experience for customers and a more efficient burrito production line.

Implement More Efficient Ordering Experiences at Your Mexican Restaurant

Not everything that chains like Chipotle and Qdoba do will be applicable to your business. But there are some fundamental lessons to take away that should resonate with most restaurant owners. 

Rock-solid processes, a strong staff culture, and efficient systems are going to be relevant for almost anyone who wants to speed up the ordering process to bring in more revenue. 

Having the right technology in place is the other piece of the puzzle. There’s no point in assembling your burritos lightning fast if your POS technology holds up the line at the point of payment.

HungerRush 360 is built for speed and efficiency. The intuitive interface allows your team to input orders faster, while contactless payment technology processes more payments in less time. All of which keeps the line moving and your customers happy.

Level up your customer ordering experience with HungerRush 360.

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