Ever since the first E.coli outbreak that Chipotle suffered in 2015, founder and longtime CEO Steve Ells’s conference calls for investors have been bleak. After waves of illness swept across the company — widespread E.coli, punctuated by some more localized norovirus outbreaks — silver linings for the burrito brand have been shockingly hard to come by. Eager to bounce back, the company has thrown a lot of ideas at the wall in the ensuing years, but every would-be win has somehow backfired.
A shift in sustainable sourcing practices (a stop gap to make sure no one else got sick) muddied Chiptole’s identity. The endless rounds of free burritos built no lasting loyalty. The new queso made no new fans. Neither did the free new queso or the new new queso. The news — for a company that was an absolute juggernaut in the fast-casual dining scene in the early 2000s — has been bad on bad on bad. And the trend is continuing.
Last week saw a massive sell-off of Chipotle stock (after another stock tumble in December), as prices free-fell 17%. This came on the heels of an earnings call that — shocker — went poorly. Declining foot traffic (and Facebook check-ins) has analysts panicked, something the company is hoping to remedy with a $50 million infusion to improve the dining rooms of their stores. The money seems like an admission that the industrial design wave has passed and over the long term customers don’t want to eat in cold, dark warehouses.
The bigger question, as the company limps through quarter after quarter, is this: Do we still need Chipotle? What role is it filling for the increasingly knowledgeable diners of the United States? What is its place in our rapidly evolving fast-casual landscape?
After two years of false starts, it’s quite possible, likely even, that the moment has simply passed Chipotle by. Maybe the brand is like a musician who had a nice window, was stymied by frustrations, and saw that window close. Or the actor who had a hit, failed to open a few big movies, and is now borderline forgotten. The pop culture analogy makes a lot of sense in this case, because Chipotle was — for a time — a pop culture phenomenon. Everyone was obsessed. There was an active social media following, people challenged themselves to eat there as often as possible… it was a juggernaut.
But any movie star or pop icon can tell you: Audiences are fickle. And there’s always something newer and hotter around the corner. Nas and Jay Z give way to Drake who gives way to Lil’ Yachty who gives way to Lil’ Pump. Times change, trends shift, and one-time heroes are left behind.
Illness aside, the real case against Chipotle is essentially a remix of the old “If you can’t find a better tasting burrito in your home city, you need to look harder” argument, but filtered through the prism of “what feels real.” Chipotle isn’t “real” Mexican food. It’s more of a riff — a mission burrito made with a few added flairs. That’s fine. No one is saying that quasi-Mexican food is all bad. At this point in American history, sorta-Mexican food is a well-established subgenre of actual Mexican food.