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Swine intervention

Why Chipotle’s conscious uncoupling with its pork supplier is a lesson for the industry.

It’s time for some merciless unfriending. Every morning you can dress with nothing more in mind than appearance and comfort. I have to consider what’ll be the most effective body armor. Working for a restaurant magazine, every day can turn into a session of The Hunger Games.

An attack can erupt at any second. Innocent small talk drifts to a casual mention of the job, and the other party suddenly turns ninja. I’m hacked, punched and kicked for every ill society ascribes to restaurant chains, because that’s the audience I serve. And in the eyes of these mad assassins, Voldemort has more good deeds to his credit than chains ever will.

That’s why I was wearing a pot as a helmet during a recent dinner with my sister, who, to put it in perspective, grows her own cilantro because the bunches sold at farmers markets aren’t fresh enough. I was braced for the worse when I heard her say, “So …,”
which is ninja for “here it comes.”

“… They said on the news today Chipotle stopped serving pork, because it wasn’t good enough,” she continued. “Why don’t all your chains have standards like that?”

There, in a microcosm, is why a menu deletion unrelated to a food-safety concern has snagged the volume of attention chains usually draw through catastrophes. This is a positive that’s sure to burnish Chipotle’s halo as a chain with principles, even if the public is vague on the specifics.

The facts are indeed impressive. Chipotle said it would stop serving carnitas-style pork at a third of its units, because the supplier wasn’t adhering to the chain’s sustainability policies. As the flood of coverage noted, the brand thought about lowering its standard or switching to another supplier on the fly but decided to abide by its promise to serve food with a difference.

The decision will likely cost the chain considerable sales. But the impact will no doubt be tempered by the perception that Chipotle is a better place to eat, an impression that explains why it posted same-store sales growth of nearly 20 percent in its third quarter of 2014 (the most recently completed quarter as of press time). In a bit of Zen, curbing sales could increase revenues.

It’s a marvel for the industry, but what other restaurateurs should really consider is my sister’s question: Why can’t other chains set and uphold the sort of standards Chipotle observes? After all, it operates more than 1,700 stores in five countries, so it can’t turn backflips like a small chain anymore. It’s also a public company, answerable to the masters other chains cite as the reason profits trump social considerations. How does Chipotle get away with it?

The answer is that it doesn’t get away with anything. It articulated a business and menu strategy in the brand’s adolescence to anyone who’d listen, including restaurant executives and investors who snickered at the
naivete of a New Age brand that knew nothing about running a big chain. For the record: Not one of the doubting brands generated the sales growth Chipotle has enjoyed in the last year.

The chain could pull a key menu item and win positive appeal—without its stock price dipping below $700 per share—because it had a conviction that there was a different way and the gumption to pursue it. It’s as simple as that.

Which brings me to a notion that has me twitching in my armor: My sister may be right on this. 

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