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Leadership

Why Brian Niccol shouldn't turn Chipotle into a QSR

Or at least not too much.

Does the appointment of Brian Niccol as Chipotle CEO spell good things for the brand’s direction? RB Executive Editor Jonathan Maze and Editor-at-Large Peter Romeo offer opposing points of view. For the alternate take, see The Bottom Line.

 

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Chipotle Mexican Grill might as well have marketed itself as the anti-Taco Bell. It, after all, was the place where consumers could get real food made with farm-fresh ingredients combined right in front of them for a customized, full-service-caliber meal. Taco Bell was where you went for cheap processed food and abominations like tacos made from formed chicken parts or flaming-red snack chips. It was food seemingly lacking the integrity that Chipotle claimed.

That's why Chipotle’s selection yesterday of Brian Niccol as its CEO was such a stunner. Until Monday, Niccol was CEO of Taco Bell, the high-profile post he earned by solidifying the brand’s perception as the consummate fast-food joint: youth-oriented, cheap, convenient and a place that exalts taste over nutrition.

Niccol’s selection was taken as indisputable proof that Chipotle is selling out and becoming just like the conventional quick-service concepts it has long mocked. It’s been moving in that direction for a while, embracing QSR signatures such as drive-thrus, limited-time offers, menu extensions and ad campaigns. It announced last week that it was even opening a classroom-type training center, or what virtually every major quick-service chain has used for years.

Now comes the appointment of Niccol, someone steeped in that world.

It remains to be seen if he’ll shift Chipotle further away from its anti-fast-food orientation. In the announcement of his appointment, Niccol professed his “tremendous respect” for what Chipotle stands for, including “its powerful purpose.” He also noted that “at Chipotle's core is delicious food.”

But outgoing CEO and Chipotle founder Steve Ells stressed in his canned comments that Niccol will be expected to make “the bold moves needed to improve operations and take the company to the next level,” albeit “while remaining true to our purpose and the values that are essential to our customers."

Chipotle won’t be the only component of the restaurant industry that would lose something if Niccol jams the nonconformist brand into a quick-service straightjacket. It’s not an overstatement to say the brand has been a disruptor, proving good food, moderate prices and convenience are not incompatible.

Its proselytizing for purer ingredients has influenced the direction of the limited-service sector, as has its serving setup. The Chipotle line is now the standard among fast casuals, and the brand’s success with a very limited, simple menu has convinced the pack that a few items more artfully prepared is preferable than trying to be all things to all customers. Consider how many chains, full-service and limited, are now striving to streamline their menus and production processes.

Sure, it was insufferably sanctimonious at times. Remember, this was the operation that rented movie theaters for free showings of a documentary that characterized the rest of the chain market as chemical factories churning out frankenfoods far removed from anything found in nature. It developed two games that basically thumped on the assertion that Chipotle was real and good, and every other brand was a bunch of mad scientists who’d run amok in a restaurant test kitchen.

But it’s been a true agent of change. Sacrificing that impetus, a challenge to the industry to prosper by being better instead of merely more efficient, would blunt a force that moved the industry in a positive direction. The whole business might have lost considerable relevance if Chipotle hadn’t illuminated a different way of courting millennials.

Here’s hoping Niccol finds a way of maintaining that contrarian, idealistic streak while also giving Chipotle a dose of practicality from the world he just exited.

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