Chipotle Mexican Grill has raided the executive suite of Taco Bell to swipe CEO Brian Niccol as its new chief.
Niccol succeeds Steve Ells as CEO of Chipotle, the chain Ells founded in 1993 as a radical alternative to Taco Bell and other conventional quick-service chains. Chipotle would often mock the traditional players for what it characterized as factory food. Few fit the bill as readily as Taco Bell, with its low-priced selections, heavy emphasize on marketing and reliance on a flurry of sometimes outlandish products that bore little resemblance to real Mexican fare.
Niccol’s name had come up repeatedly in speculation about who might become the next CEO of Chipotle, but doubters pointed to the differences in the market approaches of Chipotle and Taco Bell.
In more recent years, the strategies of the chains had moved closer together, albeit slightly. Taco Bell strived to upgrade the quality of its food, and it experimented with formats that seemed a better fit with the fast-casual segment that Chipotle had dominated.
Chipotle, meanwhile, stressed the need to better market itself, and embraced many of the quick-service practices it had disparaged, such as featuring limited-time offers and menu extensions. Most recently, it began experimenting with drive-thrus.
Niccol has a marketing background, having previously served as a CMO of Pizza Hut, a sister brand of Taco Bell. At Taco Bell, he also played a key role in distinguishing the Tex-Mex brand as a leader in social media.
He was named CEO of Taco Bell in December 2015, succeeding Greg Creed, now the CEO of Taco Bell parent Yum Brands.
Niccol's successor in the post has not been named.
“The [Chipotle] board is confident that Brian's passion and skill set ideally position him to make the bold moves needed to improve operations and take the company to the next level, all while remaining true to our purpose and the values that are essential to our customers,” Ells said in a statement announcing Niccol's appointment.
"I have tremendous respect for the Chipotle brand and its powerful purpose," Niccol said in the announcement. "At Chipotle's core is delicious food, which I will look to pair up with consistently great customer experiences. I will also focus on dialing up Chipotle's cultural relevance through innovation in menu and digital communications."
Ells had previously indicated that he will assume the role of executive chairman after a successor was found. He also assured investors that a new CEO would be a true chief and leader, not a figurehead enacting Ells' decisions.