If the pandemic has highlighted anything, it is that human beings crave contact. Those human interactions that mean so much to every day life have been sorely missed over the past 12 months.

So it felt like a counter-intuitive move for a hospitality brand to move away from human contact with its customers altogether, towards a purely digital experience. Chilango’s first digital-only restaurant at Boxpark Croydon looks to capitalise on the growth in online ordering during the pandemic.

The company in question is Chilango. It announced last week that it would be opening its first digital-only restaurant at Boxpark Croydon, as it looks to capitalise on the growth in online ordering during the pandemic. It previously operated from a much larger multi-unit space within the food hall, with plenty of in-house seating and its usual canteen system ordering system which allows customers to build their burrito as they go along the assembly line of ingredients.

The brand messaging has historically been about vibrancy – of its food, people and restaurants, with marketing videos showing fresh food being prepared and customers watching as their order comes to life. So in that respect, the new kiosk-filled unit at Boxpark seemed to chime with that ethos. It also means the customer has no ability to see the food, which in building your own burrito would be beneficial and might tempt then to add extra fillings.

Once customers have either placed their order at the digital kiosks, or in advance via Chilango’s website, their orders can then be collected in an adjacent unit, dedicated to pick-up, and then guests will either take it away or eat it in one of the communal seating areas.

While the Croydon store is only a trial, the business says it will serve as a testbed for future digital growth and development. Richard Franks, managing director at Chilango says it is exploring new ways to bring the Chilango experience to its guests.

“We first trialled digital screens in our London Wall restaurant back in 2019 and saw such a strong performance we were keen to trial a restaurant with digital only ordering,” he says. “This new style of restaurant opens up possibilities of different footprints for future openings and pipeline.”

The Mexican QSR brand is not the first brand to use digital screens for ordering, but there are not many going digital-only and completely removing the interaction with staff. And it has implications for brand marketing and the other touchpoints in the customer journey.

For Mark McMulloch, founder and CEO at brand marketing agency Supersonic Inc, this kind of development is much better suited to QSR brands, and in some ways a natural progression of the development around digital. He believes that when it comes to fast food options like Chilango, people are looking for convenience rather than a meaningful experience in the way they would if they dined in a restaurant like Dishoom or Hawksmoor for example.

The fact there are no faces of the brand by way of staff taking your order, and that customers are not seated on-site, means there is a reduction in touchpoints by which to reinforce your brand through though, he says. “It means that your packaging is going to have to shout louder, the tray that it’s on, the digital journey, the CRM after and the short experience you do have at pick up – it has to be nothing but Chilango all the way through,” he says. And that’s not to mention the food – which has to be the best bit. “The main question is how can they give people a Chilango experience through those alternative touchpoints,” he adds.

Ian Dunstall, a brand strategy & development consultant, agrees: “For me, hospitality is a combination of service, environment, product and communications tone – if there is less of one, then the others need to work harder to compensate.”

Chilango group shot

Dunstall says that while understands the consumer desire for a human touch, he often observes that frequently, especially in QSR and fast casual setting, “unfortunately there is often little emotional value in the human server exchange if the staff member does not possess sufficient skills, personality or energy beyond simple transaction process”.

“Indeed a poor service interaction can negatively influence a guest experience if it compounds wait time or is a cursory exchange,” he points out.

“I also think that QSR kiosks and Covid-induced digital ordering processes have become mainstream now and seem to be well accepted by the majority of guests,” he adds. In the absence of a seamless customer service experience, an efficient technology process, alongside strength in other experience attributes, may be a suitable alternative, believes Dunstall. “Obviously not for a more experiential occasion, but suitable for a more functional need,” he says.

One thing brands need to do, adds Dunstall, is ensure the guest clearly understands how to navigate the offer and guest journey – especially if they are new or infrequent customers.

Although he believes we’ll see more of a split between convenience and occasionality and experience in future, McCulloch says the most successful brands are likely to be the ones that manage to do omnichannel well. “Make yourself as available and accessible as you possibly can be,” he says. And don’t forget about the data.

In fact McCulloch recommends that brands ditch investment in digital ordering screens: “Just let everyone use their own smartphone. Then you can personalise the experience and you know who they are – the problem with touchscreens is that you don’t.” Lastly, make sure you do something with that data. “There’s gold in that,” he says.

As part of the mix, a digital-only offer may well work in select sites, but a solely digital-only brand could struggle with real customer loyalty and engagement.