UPDATE: Sep. 7, 2023: This piece has been updated with further comment from Whataburger.
- Whataburger opened its first digital-only off-premise focused unit in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, the company said in a press release.
- The cashless restaurant, called the Whataburger Digital Kitchen, has a mobile pickup lane in place of a traditional drive-thru, includes an exterior ordering kiosk and pickup lockers, and lacks both a dining room and curbside pickup option.
- Competing QSR brands, such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s, are testing unit designs with greater emphasis on digital ordering channels, though some have retained dining rooms.
According to the press release, the new digital kitchen is focused on preparing orders placed for pickup through the brand’s app or website, which Whataburger says will reduced time spent in the drive-thru. Recently, Whataburger began using Radar’s location technology to estimate the arrival of customers who ordered through the app, though the press release does not specify if this tech is in use at the test unit.
The chain said it opened the unit in the Austin market in part because consumers there have been receptive to new digital ordering tech.
“Our Austin Guests were early to embrace other digital innovations, making it a perfect fit for our first Whataburger Digital Kitchen,” said Whataburger CEO and president Ed Nelson.
The unit employs approximately 50 workers, according to the press release. By comparison, a recently opened Whataburger restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colorado, employs 80 workers. The digital kitchen will be a similar size to the company’s standard 2,300 square-foot units, Whataburger said in an email to Restaurant Dive.
A Whataburger spokesperson said it is evaluating the expansion potential of the digital kitchen and is “continually exploring future sites and will share information on upcoming plans as soon as we’re able.”
“The Whataburger Digital Kitchen represents our brand’s commitment to innovation,” the spokesperson said. “As we continue to expand, the digital kitchen will play a role in making sure we deliver on the convenience our growing digital customer base is asking for.”
Digital-focused units like Taco Bell’s redesigned Go Mobile stores are often smaller, and can fit on smaller lots, than stores with dining rooms, ostensibly reducing real estate costs. Brands like Panera and Sweetgreen are testing digital only-units to aid expansion into dense cities, though Chipotle has integrated digital pickup as a keystone in its growth strategy overall. It’s not clear quite how digital kitchens fit into Whataburger’s expansion plans and whether the new unit will be a blueprint for expansion into other markets.
Whataburger hired Debbie Stroud as chief operating officer in February, with the task of overseeing the restaurant brand’s growth. That month, the chain also overhauled its reward program, in a possible effort to boost its digital engagement.