Chipotle broke its brand promise; manufacturers should take note

By Bart Taylor | Oct 30, 2017

For manufacturers, Chipotle and other restaurant brands that manage complex supply chains and shape raw materials into refined products are kindred spirits. They're makers all. We've also profiled regional growers and ranchers who shape the 'locavore' community and supply Chipotle and others, so the outcomes of local food artisans are always of interest.

Likewise, there are lessons to be learned when restaurant food brands flail, and for consumer manufacturers especially, Chipotle's crash to earth the past couple years offers two important takeaways.

Lesson one, complex supply chains break. Be prepared.

Chipotle's challenge in growing, packaging, transporting, preserving, and presenting food products have been well documented and from where I sit, there's no need in piling on. What they accomplish day to day, week to week, is hard. Other brands that have transformed entire industry sectors with vision and innovation can relate. Failing at complex operations is inevitable. Chipotle's supply chain was bound to crash at some point. Their recovery has been admirable.

But at the center of Chipotle's current woes may be a more fundamental fail. As a long time customer and fan, I've lost the deep connection I once had with the Chipotle brand, and suspect others have as well. And until someone inside the company tells the truth, attempts to rescue the brand with Band-Aids like 'queso' will fail.

I was an early Chipotle customer and ate often at the chain's first location on Evans Avenue near the campus of University of Denver. More accurately, I overate. The trademark burritos were stuffed to the point that their makers would often struggle to wrap the conglomeration into a single tortilla. (Watch Sebastian Maniscalco’s hilarious take on Chipotle’s burrito makers.)

I still eat at Chipotle, a couple times a month. I like the food, but today my visits often come with a side of irritation. The company's burrito artisans spoon about four ounces of chicken or steak or whatever over rice or beans. I had to know so I asked. Gone is the visceral delight of being served a three-pound burrito that often doubled as lunch and dinner. Of standing in line for 15 or 20 minutes with like-minded schlumps, all giddy that the eight bucks about to be spent was true value.

Chipotle was not only a culinary delight, novel and innovative and massive, it was an over-the-top deal. And we came back, wide-eyed and ready for more. Today an algorithm dictates that a few ounces of organic pork, served in a jillion burritos, will sustain growth and the stock price.

All fine, except that the company has walked away from a its core brand appeal. When I visit the restaurant now, an accountant serves up my burrito bowl. The food's still good. The experience, the satisfaction, gone. Is it a surprise the stock price has crashed -- down 60 percent the past year? Not to me. It's just a business now. I wonder if today it's just a business to Steve Ells and his lieutenants.

Lesson two: Keep your promises. If divesting a share of your company or going public obscures or buries the values that attracted a legion of customers to your brand, you're toast.

Served with a side of queso.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at