Friday, March 4, 2016

The Rise and Fall of the Chipotle Cult

In the end, one of two things happens to a cult: followers get bored and find another, or everyone dies. In the case of Chipotle's, the state of California got a litigious case of Montezuma's Revenge. 

It's hard to say how it happened. After successfully dodging several outbreaks in 2008 and 2009, a slew of E. coli and Salmonella cases crippled the burrito chain through the second half of 2015, particularly on the west coast. Stock plummeted from over an astonishing $700 a share to barely $400 in January. 

Public relations officials convinced the public that suppliers were to blame. The company apologized and began handing out free food to lure diners back to short lines that once circled city blocks. Then, just as it seemed they were regaining some business - and customers began to forget about all the shit - they did it again. Free food is great, but in this scenario, it just reminded customers of the reason you had to give out free food to begin with. 

Chipotle's business model was always unique, and it's spawned a string of similar setups that have redefined fast food. Traditional fast food isn't suffering, at least not enough to change the game, but before Chipotle there weren't many fast food options that offered quality food at a reasonable price. For a few dollars more than a value meal at a dumpy chain, you get tasty food that claims to be healthy in a decent atmosphere. 

Chains like BurgerFi and local eateries like Rice + Mix and Mirabella Meatball Company offer you the same base-plus-toppings, have-it-your-way options on everything from a burger to Bibimbap. And of course, Qdoba, Jack in the Box's take on burritos, began as a carbon copy of Chipotle.

But Chipotle clung to its core and refused to evolve and branch out. Their menu is neat and clean, it's simple, but consumers grow tired of the same thing. Qdoba began offering melted queso, smothered burritos, and nachos. Sometimes referred to as "The Soup Nazi" of Mexican cuisine, Chipotle won't deviate from their core offerings. They have the ingredients to make nachos - chips, beans, cheese, and meat - but you're not getting them in one bowl unless you know someone, or make a fuss and get an eye rolls. 

Customer service is strange to say the least. It's polite, weirdly polite, if you don't fall out of line. Extremely chipper and seemingly help for, "indoctrinating" is the best word that comes to mind. But it's also two-faced. Their employees have a very visible and active presence on social media. Ask for a full salsa cup or extra guac and you might find yourself the butt of a ruthless Tweet, #chipotleprobz #thisiswhyyourefat.

#chipotleprobz indeed. Maybe consumers got tired of an outbreak too many, and maybe Chipotle reminded them of that one too many times. Or maybe a brief reprieve allowed the Cult of Chipotle to realize their basic burritos are just, basic. Customers are fickle, and the Millennials that flocked there don't like reading their complaints BuzzFeed. Customers like change and cozy booths. When the seats at McDonald's are more comfortable than stools designed to get you in and out as quickly is possible, a little case of diarrhea is all it takes to get people wondering what the hell they're waiting in line for. 

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