Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol reflects on the pre-pandemic change that kept burritos moving

Right after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s business took a dip. That, of course, was to be expected. Most businesses hit a wall back then. But thanks to decisions made by CEO Brian Niccol and the rest of his team, Chipotle found its way quickly—and the company’s stock price has more than doubled since the pandemic began. Plus, earlier this year, the fast-casual chain made its Fortune 500 debut.

Right before the pandemic, Chipotle started the process of installing digital make lines, which are second kitchens that “take care of all the orders coming in from the app,” Niccol says. That decision paid off.

The company went from between 10% and 15% of orders coming in from digital to “really 100% of our business being digital,” Niccol says. “Fortunately for us, we had all the processes already in place and our teams were trained on it. And that was what really kind of saved us through those first couple months when we weren’t sure where this was going.”

Now, he adds, about 40% of Chipotle’s burrito and rice bowl orders come in through digital channels. And the number of orders has skyrocketed.

“Before the pandemic, we were probably on track to do about a billion dollars of digital sales,” Niccol says. “Now coming out of the pandemic, we’re probably on track to do over $3 billion of digital business. And that’ll represent 40% of our business for this calendar year.”

Niccol joins Fortune cohosts Ellen McGirt and Alan Murray on Leadership Next, a podcast about the changing rules of business leadership, to talk about communicating with employees during trying times, how the company’s strong food safety and wellness culture helped throughout the pandemic, and how, Niccol says, Chipotle’s “strong balance sheet [kept] people employed and paid during what were really uncertain times.” Listen to the full episode below.

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