I spent 10 years working for Chipotle and in many ways it was the highlight of my professional career. I was incredibly fortunate to join the company when it was only 9 years old in 2002, when there were a couple hundred locations. I had no idea when I joined the company what was in store for me personally and professionally, but I knew I loved the mission to change the way the world thinks about and eats fast food. Prior to joining Chipotle my entire career had been spent at McDonald’s where it was about Quality, Service, and Cleanliness, which while admirable wasn’t a vision to change the world. That was compelling to me.
So I latched onto that vision and along with so many thousands of other people, we believed. We believed that food with integrity was the key to accomplishing that vision. We told the story on a shoestring marketing budget. We hit the streets. We did events. We did fundraisers to support local organizations. We bought lunches for guests when they brought new people in. We believed. We saw people camping out on sidewalks for new restaurant openings when we went to new cities and states. We saw lives change, both in our employees and in our guests. We made the world a better place by supporting our local farmers and by standing up to industrial farming. We believed.
This is why many of us who were at Chipotle during those formative years are struggling with the current version of the brand, and where we are afraid it might go. We were there. We saw the brand invest ahead of the business and create opportunities for thousands of people over the years, that otherwise would not have had those opportunities, We all had a hand in creating a culture that was the envy of the restaurant business. That culture fueled years of sustainable growth. We saw the non-negotiable commitment to food with integrity. We learned how and why the way we cut an onion mattered. We taught that the food, feel, and flow of our restaurants were the most important things we could do to build the business. We taught our field leaders how to diagnose the root cause of the problem. We taught them how to dig down deep and make an impact.
To be clear, I have no issue with making a change in the leadership of the brand. It had to happen. Egos were out of control. The strategies weren’t working. They couldn’t get out of their own way. I know it. You know it. Wall Street knew it. We get it. But while the strategies and the approach to correcting the sales issues weren’t working and they could never seem to find the silver bullet to turn the company around following the food safety issues, does that mean the core concept was flawed? I don’t think so.
I believe so strongly that the best days don’t have to be behind Chipotle that after being gone for over 5 years I reached back out at the beginning of 2018 and asked about rejoining the team. I knew I could help. I desperately wanted to help. It crushed me and so many others to see the brand struggle. I received a nice email back saying they would consider my request, but I never heard anything again. It was only later when I realized that they did not want me back, nor most of anyone who had been around in those early years because we knew what COULD be, and how it SHOULD be, and probably didn’t have the flexibility to take the brand where it WOULD be going. And they were right.
Does the brand need to be reinvented? Absolutely. Every brand needs to evolve and change with the changing consumer. But it is imperative that any brand sticks with the core values that got them to the dance to begin with. The commitment to high-quality ingredients, leadership development, incredible storytelling, keeping the culture special, and getting your food fast without it being a fast food experience, is essential for Chipotle. This is about making sure that how Chipotle improves their results is just as important to them as how they get those results.
I’m one person, but I think I speak for thousands of people when I say to Chipotle, do what you have to do to get healthy, but don’t do it at any cost. Don’t lose the soul of what makes Chipotle special, and whatever you do, don’t become fast food. The mission has not been accomplished yet, and there is still a chance for you to further change the way people think about and eat fast food while preserving the soul of the brand.