Chipotle CEO Reveals What His Biggest Challenge Is Working Behind the Counter

If you’re stumped looking at a Chipotle menu, you can take inspiration from CEO Brian Niccol’s favorite order: a chicken burrito bowl with white rice, veggie fajitas, pico de gallo, and “a little” cheese. That’s in addition to a barbacoa quesadilla and, of course, chips and guacamole.

“It’s probably too much food for my age,” Niccol said. Fortune. “But, you know, it’s hard to resist.”

Although he never worked behind the counter at Chipotle, Niccol has experienced firsthand what it takes to prepare his food, among many others. After taking over as CEO of the fast-casual chain in 2018, part of Niccol’s initiation was training at a location in Denver, Colorado, where he learned how to prepare the chain’s vegetables and toppings, manage hours restaurant lunch rush and learn the skill that is perhaps most praised among fast-food workers: grouping the ingredients of a burrito into a tightly wrapped tortilla.

“Wrapping a burrito is an art,” Niccol said.

Niccol, who admits he is slow to learn how to wrap burritos and needs repetition to master the line, admitted that he “broke too many” tortillas during his training process. But the behind-the-counter experience gave him a deeper appreciation for the workers who prepare and serve Chipotle’s meals, helping generate $2.7 billion in first-quarter revenue for the company and growing it to more than 3,300 locations. in 48 states.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there is a lot of precision in the way our teams prepare the rice, cook the chicken and cook the steak,” Niccol said. “It really matters the way we cut, the way we prepare everything. “It was quite eye-opening to see, especially at the scale we have to do it at.”

Accumulating success

But if learning the art of wrapping burritos was a steep learning curve for Niccol, reviving the company from a sour reputation must have been its own stomach ache for the new CEO.

When Niccol became the company’s leader in 2018, Chipotle was still recovering from the impact of its 2016. E.coli Outbreaks that sickened more than a thousand customers, forcing the company to temporarily close more than 40 locations. Chipotle’s comparable sales fell 20% year over year after the outbreak, and the company spent $25 million in 2020, the largest fine ever in a federal food safety case.

Chipotle rebounded under Niccol’s leadership thanks to some key changes: It moved from Denver to Newport Beach to be closer to Irvine, where Niccols was finishing his tenure as CEO of Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands and home to a talent pool of fast food workers. He grew Chipotle’s loyalty program and app, helping the company bring customers back to its facilities during the pandemic. Chipotle put increasing emphasis on promoting fresh ingredients and leaned toward the open kitchen design of its restaurants, asking employees to think more like chefs and providing more information about each ingredient. Niccol said this change in attitude elevated the fast food concept to more of a sit-down restaurant feel.

“There’s something about the sights and sounds of Chipotle, hearing the grill and seeing the guys cutting chicken and seeing people banging pans,” Niccol said. Fortune in 2023. “You want those sounds and you want those smells.

Today, the company is grappling with decisions to raise prices to offset wage increases, as well as consumer backlash over the ability to order only some menu items online (including Niccol’s favorite barbacoa quesadilla). and portion sizes, which some say have decreased. Allegations about scarce burrito bowls have even led some customers to film employees preparing their meals, alleging that workers stockpile proteins and toppings in front of a phone camera. Niccol insists that Chipotle’s portions are as generous as ever.

“We always want to give people big portions that get them excited about food,” he said. “If you want to double the amount of meat, you have to pay for it, but our goal is to get people really excited about what I think is a really delicious meal.”

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