It's time to check in on Chipotle Mexican Grill, the burrito chain at the cutting edge of food activism that's had more ups and downs than a halfpipe Olympic snowboarder.
In September of 2015, in a post titled "What Happens When Scarecrow Meets Chubby Chipotle," I described how the company's spectacular rise was propelled by social-media marketing that promised "Food With Integrity" while attacking conventional agriculture, which happens to provide most of its competitors' ingredients (http://tiny.cc/…).
A few months later, in "Want Sanctimony With Those Burritos," I looked at the chain's equally spectacular fall, as its "Food With Integrity" started giving hundreds of its customers E. coli, salmonella and norovirus (http://tiny.cc/…).
Chipotle took steps to fix its food-safety problems, which I charted in "The Long, Hard Road Back From a Food Safety Crisis" (http://tiny.cc/…). Despite those steps, the company is far from back to where it wants to be. Its stock price has risen in recent weeks but is $100 a share below a year ago and $400 below its 2015 peak (http://tiny.cc/…).
Something had to be done, then, but even granting the company's need to act boldly, what it did shocked the world. In an irony more delicious than the tastiest burrito, Chipotle raided a savior from the ultimate anti-Chipotle company. Yes, Brian Nicoll, who engineered a turnaround as chief executive of Taco Bell, is now Chipotle's chief executive (http://tiny.cc/…).
Nicoll is said to be a wizard at marketing, so the business world is abuzz with speculation about how he might change Chipotle's. Will he give the brand a new slogan? Add humor to the social-media campaign? Create slick TV ads? Change the menu? Put Chipotle in the breakfast business? Nicoll did all those things at Taco Bell (http://tiny.cc/…) (http://bit.ly/…).
Conventional farmers and ranchers might well ask a different question: Will Nicoll end the attack ads?
Whatever he does with the slogan, nobody expects him to renounce Chipotle's boasting about "Food With Integrity." That's the company's niche, its competitive advantage. And with founder and former CEO Steve Ells staying on as chairman, Nicoll's ability to make radical changes will be limited, anyway.
But it's possible to pat yourself on the back without knifing your rival. If Nicoll wants to broaden Chipotle's loyal customer base, he might consider abandoning the make-enemies-to-win-customers strategy Chipotle has been following.
Conventional farmers and ranchers can at least hope.
Urban Lehner can be reached at email@example.com
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