For a small town of 4,000 people in New York’s Hudson Valley, Highland Falls punches well above its cultural weight. In more normal years, tens of thousands of tourists would descend upon the town to tour the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and nearby Revolutionary War sites. Billy Joel, a onetime resident, wrote a beloved B-side about the place. And late last year, Highland Falls became the chosen host of another national institution: Chipotle’s very first ghost kitchen, a new store model with no in-person ordering and no in-store dining.
On a recent winter afternoon, I trekked an hour north of New York City to see it for myself. From the outset, it was more or less what you’d expect at a Chipotle. Those familiar concrete floors and that minimalist steel-and-plywood design aesthetic, plus pop music overhead and the smell of grilled onions and peppers. One major difference, of course, is that it was eerily devoid of actual customers jamming themselves into small communal tables and lurking near seats that might open up. That this newfangled, online-only Chipotle didn’t even have a bathroom truly drove home the grab-and-go motif a little more forcefully than I would have liked, especially after a long drive. Still, the fact that this store debuted after a quarter in which Chipotle saw its digital sales triple from the previous year clearly demonstrates that something fundamental has changed.
By one industry estimate, there are now about 100,000 virtual restaurants in the United States alone, with many bearing suspiciously search engine optimized names like the Omelette Farm and Pizza of New York.
As I downed a chicken burrito bowl in my car, I considered the unintentional irony of Chipotle opening its first ghost kitchen just outside the gates of West Point. After all, the burrito bowl is practically the civilian equivalent of an MRE field ration, and the kitchen assembly line that produces…