These days, Chipotle seems a bit like the elusive teenager whose parents approve of you as long as you never let them down again. It’s lost some of its luster from an outbreak of foodborne illness that killed at least one person and left dozens of others ill, and its brand reputation has been damaged, and yet it keeps pushing on even though it continues to lose market share. How it does so is almost as important as how it does it, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that after all it’s been through, Chipotle must have given up on trying.
If so, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say it’s done trying. This month, Chipotle introduced something of a miracle: smoked brisket. After quietly testing the meat in Texas and Oklahoma, Chipotle now offers it in regular and sweet chili meat sauce and served alongside guacamole and salsa. Yes, smoked brisket, not chorizo, a seasoned sausage, but we’ll get to that.
Chipotle doesn’t yet offer a turkey option (when it does, it says it will build an order based on the size of your meat, because Turkey? You know what would be better: Turkey, not pork. Get it?). Though customers will have to wait a bit longer than usual for the meat to be made available, customers can start preordering it today.
But why did Chipotle take this step? The answer may surprise you. It’s an answer to none of the above. It’s also not even the most radical idea it’s run across lately. And that’s the take-away here, more for the fact that this is a notable move than for the fact that it’s significant. What is noteworthy is that Chipotle’s media team doesn’t seem to be advertising this. Instead, the company—which doesn’t have much to brag about at this point, other than its revenue is up to $1.1 billion from $900 million the previous year—is letting the option bake in. And it’s not making it available only to those who previously didn’t eat there.
The development is the latest in a string of moves this month by Chipotle to revamp its menu, and these moves haven’t been devoid of controversy. Few would dispute that tacos and burritos still represent a winning formula, and Chipotle’s strategy, which has long relied on its well-known simplicity, has generated remarkable success. But Chipotle has never been especially interested in serving foie gras. It’s never been particularly interested in serving organic corn. It’s never been particularly interested in serving a turkey burrito. In fact, as Choe Weisbrot noted in The New Yorker earlier this month, you won’t find it in its menu. The best part about Chipotle is that it still serves them all well—that’s what’s so great about it. And because Chipotle has also fended off countless competitors of every conceivable stripe, it’s constantly been forced to evolve. That’s been the name of its success.
But none of those moves has come without risk. The turkey burrito hasn’t gotten a lot of attention at first blush, even though it’s a country bumpkin’s dream come true, served in chicken broth and surrounded by a pot of brown rice, or a carbonara-like taste and texture, or whatever else Choe Weisbrot put in her most recent article. Chipotle is reinventing its brand, and it hasn’t treated these experiments with the same degree of care it has given the new brisket. It’s it’s almost taken for granted that it has some off-the-wall idea, and because it doesn’t seem to realize that it’s right, Chipotle risks further damaging its brand. So, this isn’t bad news, necessarily, as long as this isn’t the sign of things to come. But it certainly isn’t a welcome development for a company trying to pull itself out of its current slump.