Don’t ask Chipotle’s CEO about the ‘new normal’

RB’s Restaurant Leader of the Year Brian Niccol says innovation—not complacency—will drive restaurant brands forward post-pandemic.
Brian Niccol
Photograph by Christina Gandolfo

To Chipotle Mexican Grill CEO Brian Niccol, the “new normal”—that phrase bandied about so much amid the coronavirus crisis—needs to disappear.

“I don’t really love that phrase,” Niccol, Restaurant Business’ 2020 Restaurant Leader of the Year, said during a recentRB webinar. “Whatever is normal now will change. One thing we’ve all learned is we have to be flexible. That’s a phrase of complacency. I’ve tried to ask our guys not to use that phrase anywhere.”

Niccol was honored by the magazine for correcting Chipotle’s course over the past two years, returning the 2,638-unit fast casual to its place as a top-performing restaurant brand. The chain, which has no debt and more than $900 million in cash on hand, recently saw its stock price close over $1,000 a share for the first time.

Niccol, who spent seven years as a marketer with Taco Bell before taking over Chipotle’s top post from founder Steve Ells in 2018, is known for encouraging out-of-the-box innovation in all areas.

Among the most-prescient solutions under his tenure has been the development and expansion of drive-thru pick-up lanes, which the chain calls Chipotlanes. Nearly 70 of the chain’s units currently have the pick-up lanes, but the company plans to add them to as many as 70% of future stores because of their success as a high-margin, contactless, accessible option.

“It’s definitely demonstrated that the additional accessibility, ordering ahead and making your food experiences contactless continues to be a behavior consumers are adopting,” Niccol said. “Even after we’re through this crisis, that’s going to be a behavior consumers will want access to going forward.”

Technology will be one of the company’s biggest areas of future innovation, he said, encompassing everything from improved operational efficiency to a better understanding of consumer behavior through the chain’s 12 million rewards program members.

The chain is also look at strategies to innovate its menu, including ways in which Chipotle is “leading the customer’s palate,” he said, with dishes such as cauliflower rice or new plant-based items.

For Niccol, recognized as an outstanding industry leader, his biggest challenge as a CEO comes in “clarity of communication and staying focused.”

“When people understand what the company is focused on, and they have clarity around it, it’s amazing how powerful an organization of 85,000 people can be,” he said. “I’m really focused on how do I elevate my game in communicating clearly what we’re doing to invest in our people, our business and our future.”

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