Chipotle founder Steve Ells set the pace for the build-it-yourself movement in fast casuals. Under his leadership, the industry darling was fine to rest on its laurels. Then the massive foodborne illness outbreaks struck. “The company just went quiet,” CEO Brian Niccol said at the ICR Conference in January.
Now, three years after the outbreaks, the pioneer that did for customization what Ford did for the assembly line has changed its approach to pushing its menu forward. The pace of change is led by a new guard: Niccol, CMO Chris Brandt and Chief Restaurant Officer Scott Boatwright, among others. “If you say Chipotle, people have heard of the brand, of course,” said Niccol, former Taco Bell CEO. “But if you ask what the brand is about, they have a hard time articulating that. We’re going to be much more front and center.”
As a pacesetter and onetime source of comparison for the entire fast-casual space, the company is finding smart ways to use existing budgets and adjust what’s in-house to excite people about its menu.
One key change has been the reallocation of the existing marketing budget to more visible advertising—ads that showcase in-house staff preparing items on the make line. “We’re spending the same amount,” said CFO Jack Hartung at ICR. “But the marketing team has done a great job of taking the budget and putting it where people are going to see it.” Now, commercials and other materials highlight the menu and what made the brand so popular—its freshness.
One other change has been Chipotle’s willingness to innovate on the menu, especially when so many brands are cutting back on menu size. In part to drive traffic and acquire new customers, Chipotle launched a collection of bowls tailored to appeal to customers on specialized diets such as keto, paleo and Whole30. The new bowls are made with ingredients already on hand, instead of having to add to the menu.