Lunch Lines Really Are Getting Slower. The Apps Are To Blame.

A recent Slate article explores the perils of mobile pre-orders.

If you've noticed a serious holdup at your favorite fast-casual chain eatery lately, you're not alone. Slate writer Henry Grabar recently reported on the driving force behind the issue: a clash between online and in-person ordering.

Grabar kicks off the article with an anecdote about an unusually slow ordering experience, during which he noticed that "more than half the people behind the counter were preparing lunch for a shadow line of customers," whom Grabar refers to as "the preorderers." The preorderers were rushing in, grabbing their food to go, and leaving the in-person orderers in their dust. "They were skipping the line and eating up my lunch hour," Grabar writes.

It's true: every fast-casual chain seems to be pushing preorders as the way of the future. Grabar cites a choice few including Shake Shack, a chain whose digital sales now represent 47% of all its order volume. Starbucks' online order rate also increased from 16% to 24% between 2019 and 2020. Grabar adds that Chipotle's first-quarter "digital orders" grew 133% over the prior three months this year, accounting for "more than half of all sales at the chain." More than that, Grabar reports that "nearly all Chipotle restaurants now have a second, hidden assembly line for digital orders." Fine, Chipotle! Keep your secrets!

Is this the new normal? Oh, yeah. Grabar makes it clear that we're living in the age of the "ghost kitchen" model, which we've reported on several times. These delivery-only "restaurants" emphasize a limited staff-customer interaction, which Grabar describes as "cutting out the friction of deliberating customers and cash transactions."

I'll admit: I'm a bit of a preorderer. It's hard not to be, when it's clear that digital ordering means the difference between waiting in a long line or enjoying an extra 20 blissfully empty-headed minutes during my lunch hour. But, as Grabar points out, there's something disquieting about the labor implications of cramming one's employees into a secret room where they'll spend an eight-hour shift preparing ghostly to-go orders. For more information on the phenomenon, check out the Slate article here.

What about you? Do you consider yourself the stand-in-line type, or a seasoned preorderer? Or does it depend on the restaurant?