Monday, April 27, 2009

In Chipotle We Trust

I'm a big fan of Chipotle. The company is opening stores like crazy, their sales are way up, and the stock is on a tear (up 72% since February), not to mention the gastronomic enchantment at the core of the company’s daily mission. In a year of Wall Street bailouts, government blunders, and Madoff scandals, Chipotle is one of the few remaining rock-solid institutions that the public can count on. The burrito Mecca consistently offers high-quality ingredients, friendly service (almost always), and most importantly, killer burritos. Chipotle delivers--and that’s something you can’t say too often these days. Chipotle isn't just a restaurant or a company; it's an institution that holds a preeminent place in the American social order. Chipotle delivers a heavy dose of authenticity, and creativity, all while never ceasing to disappoint hungry burrito-eaters. Face it: We're living in turbulent times where even hundred year old institutions are going extinct. Thankfully there are still some institutions we can believe in—In Chipotle We Trust.
Authenticity: Visit a Chipotle and not only can you taste the authenticity, but you can feel it, see it, and even hear it. The rugged industrial architecture features corrugated metal paneling with no-frills furniture, hard cement floors, and an open kitchen. Ingredients are laid before customers for their judgment, not hidden from customers’ discerning view. Chipotle is serious about being real—everything from the pork to the pico de gallo is made of ingredients you can actually pronounce. In fact, the restaurant is the largest buyer of naturally raised meats in the country and the menu has only changed once since 1996 when it introduced salads. You can hear Chipotle’s authenticity too. It’s not just the clanging pots and pans (yes those are real metal), but it’s the delta-blues and hot Latin funk, not muzak, that they pump through the store.
When they say customers are important to them, they aren't kidding either.

Customer Focus: Both front-line employees at the restaurants and the carpet walkers in Denver really care what customers think. When I complained about their chicken being too salty, they listened and someone replied with a personal email, CC’ing a ton of people at the company. When I asked about the guac, they listen, and sometimes they give me free chips...they even gave me a t-shirt. Chipotle cares about customers as people, not just order numbers, and it shows in the fierce customer loyalty they’ve earned.

Creativity: Also setting Chipotle apart from other businesses is their sense of creativity. Most companies are afraid to give customers what they want. In restaurants across America you see “No Substitutions” warnings at the bottom of menus, but instead of limiting choices, Chipotle empowers customers to ask for what they want, and does a fantastic job delivering it. I challenge you to conceive a permutation of ingredients that Chipotle staff will not permit—it cannot be done. The seemingly limitless possibilities create a sense of delight and choice that keeps customers coming back.
I’ve lavished an inordinate amount of praise on Chipotle here, so I must offer some criticism, of which I have plenty. How can Chipotle improve? What could they do better? I've got a bunch of ideas. Listen up—I want to hear your comments on this too.

  1. Bring back free sodas for college students. That's something cool that lets customers feel like they're special and getting in on something unique. Soda is cheap--give it away and you earn more in goodwill from customers than it costs you in sugar water.
  2. Work harder to create a sense of discovery, wonderment, and delight. The first few times of going to Chipotle are like entering a new world for customers. "Barbacoa? What's that? Let me try!" After a few visits, the novelty is gone, becomes expected and part of one's habit. I’d like to see something different and special every time I go in (different seasonings, types of tortillas, special drinks, different meats). This variability introduces some more complexity to the kitchen, but if the company wants to grow and keep customers interested, burrito boredom must not be tolerated.
  3. Make the line shorter at lunch time. Get the kitchen staff and operations people together and figure out a way to make the line shorter or serve more customers faster. There’s nothing worse than having to wait forever to get your burrito. I’ll let someone else figure this one out, but I can think of some evil demand-based pricing schemes.
  4. Avoid the fast food mentality. Chipotle does a pretty good job at not appearing to be a fast food restaurant, but with over 800 restaurants across the U.S., they must be watchful of the temptation to wring out costs by diluting the experience. My advice is to keep each customer visit and store experience unique. A great example is Trader Joes: They keep the experience fresh by consistently innovating in products and with creative store artwork/signage. Chipotle should allow employees to add their own artwork to the menu and incorporate regional specialties or traditions. The result is delighted customers and more engaged employees.
  5. Have more fun in the kitchen. Food is meant to be live. Have you ever had "dead food"? Go to Berkeley and ask some hippies what dead food is—trust me, it's not pretty. Show us that your food is alive by how the cooks interact with the servers. The kitchen server dichotomy seen in most restaurants breaks down with the open kitchen, and Chipotle should embrace it. I want to see the cooks smile and create my burrito with pride and enthusiasm.
Disclosure: I have nothing to disclose (besides getting a free t-shirt once).