Kicking a humbled Chipotle Mexican Grill is neither sporting nor wise, given how frantically the once-dominant brand is trying to right itself. The real attention-grabbers were announcing a CEO change and revamping a product that was introduced just a few months ago as a Hogwarts-caliber charm for luring back lost traffic. But the efforts also include these slyer stabs at recovery.
Here’s a quick recap of what was quietly undertaken, along with an indication of how the industry is reacting less than kindly.
1. The other menu revamp
Pressure from investors would ease considerably for the company if one of Chipotle’s sideline businesses were offsetting the blah performance of the mother brand. The operator has been virtually mute about its largest side project, the Pizzeria Locale chain (where we expect outgoing CEO Steve Ells to devote more time once he actually steps away). But there was confirmation this week that it’s not forgotten the potential of Tasty Made, a homegrown better-burger venture.
Just two months after taking over leadership of the one-unit experiment from Ells, celebrity chef Richard Blais has revamped and greatly expanded the menu of Tasty Made, a concept remarkably similar to In-N-Out. Part of the likeness was featuring a bill of fare largely limited to a few variations of burgers and fries.
Those are still the lone building blocks of a Tasty Made order, but the variations have multiplied exponentially. Patrons of the lone unit can now order a new signature, The Tasty Made, a double cheeseburger that sounds conspicuously like In-N-Out’s Double Double.
Heft is delivered in a variety of ways. A new burger called The Mighty Made features three patties. And it can be bulked up with however many additional patties the customer would like, at a price of $1.50 each.
The sandwiches are also available now as part of combo meals, instead of merely a la carte.
2. Just in queso
Meanwhile, back at the core brand, Chipotle mounted another attempt to woo lapsed customers with queso, a product that was expected to be catnip for the alienated because it was the addition most requested by patrons.
But the sauce didn’t bedazzle and draw the way Ells and his team had expected. That led to a revamp of the recipe—some three months after the original was introduced. Queso 2.0 is reportedly smoother, smokier and less likely to congeal after sitting for a bit.
The follow-up announced late this week was the promise of free queso to anyone who wears a cheesy holiday sweater when visiting a unit next Tuesday. Ugly Sweater Day is actually three days later, but competitors on the competitive-sweater circuit have already pulled their knits out of mothballs for the season, so the turnout could be significant. Early food giveaways did pull in customers, but served to deepen cost as much as delivering a sustained gain in traffic.
Chipotle hasn’t said as much, but we think the giveaway will be the chain’s stab at hooking consumers on the new and improved queso.
3. A 180 with Ells’ successor?
The game of guessing who might succeed Ells as Chipotle’s CEO is more irresistible than Candy Crush, as we can attest. There’s no shortage of speculation, but few of the possibilities were as stunning and controversial as the one put forth this week by Hedgeye restaurant analyst Howard Penney. He suggested the perfect candidate is Brian Nichol, currently CEO of Taco Bell.
Penney argued that Nichol has experience at running a big company, which Ells lacked, and knows the preferences of the younger consumers who once flocked to Chipotle.
The suggestion wasn’t well received on the internet, where consumers out-yelled investors about how wrong that choice would be. Taco Bell, after all, is exactly what Chipotle has said it purposely is not: Reliant on processed ingredients, menu abominations like taco shells made out of a chicken breast, and gimmicky items like Doritos Locos Tacos.
4. A beefier successor
This being the restaurant industry, competitors haven't overlooked the marketing opportunities afforded by Chipotle’s misery. A notable whack was taken this week by DMK Burger Bar, chef Michael Kornick’s casual chain.
The five-unit operation “leaked” a proposal letter sent to Ells by a would-be successor, one of DMK’s signature burgers, called #6. “I have always admired the brand you’ve build from 1 to 2,350 locations, and I would like to take this opportunity to add my name to the hat for your role: CEO of Chipotle,” the burger purportedly wrote.
As the lone Mexican riff on DMK’s burger menu, #6 claimed a special affinity with Tex-Mex-inspired Chipotle. The letter noted that the sandwich demonstrates true mastery of chorizo, an ingredient that Chipotle introduced with considerable fanfare but scrapped this summer because of apparent disinterest. “Just imagine if we could properly re-introduce it to your customers,” the burger supposedly wrote.
The letter is signed, “#6, a food with integrity.”