I need to start with a disclaimer. I think Chipotle Mexican Grill burritos are bloody delicious. A one-visit minimum is non-negotiable every time I visit the U.S. A couple of years ago, after a late Sunday evening arrival in Boston, I set out like a madman to score that sweet foil-wrapped parcel from the nearest restaurant. It involved urgent and confusing train rides across the city and culminated with me arriving just minutes after the restaurant had closed for the night. All I was left to hold was my unfulfilled desire. It hurt.
So I can empathise with carnitas fans enduring Chipotle’s pork shortage. The shortage, however, represents an interesting brand lesson. Chipotle has been conspicuous in positioning itself as a purveyor of “food with integrity” (their words). Its website outlines a commitment to local produce, ethically raised and additive free meat and non-GM ingredients.
In January Chipotle chose not to purchase pork from one of its suppliers after it discovered the pigs were not being raised in line with its animal welfare standards. This decision led to Chipotle being unable to serve pork in a third of its 1,700 outlets. On top of that, Chipotle is taking the time it needs to ensure any new supplier meets its requirements despite the shortage impacting on its sales growth.
While Chipotle’s conscience-driven approach to the food it serves is no secret, the publicity resulting from this recent decision has given it another reason to reiterate what it stands for as a company. It has allowed Chipotle to offer up a very real and tangible expression of its brand values and make them come alive off its website. Such a decision underlines that when Chipotle says “integrity”, it actually means it.
At the frontline, Chipotle’s staff are able to re-energise the brand’s storytelling of its ethical and sustainable food message on a daily basis by explaining to customers why pork isn’t available. This further serves to ensure Chipotle’s brand values, which comprise a compelling point of difference against other fast-casual restaurants, do not just get lost in all the white noise.
Chipotle is, of course, keenly aware that the corollary of making this disruptive business decision is the boost that comes to its brand. In a recent earnings conference call, Chipotle Chairman and Co-CEO Steve Ells stated:
“Since we made this decision the majority of sentiment from our customers has been very supportive in the email and web comments along with social media posts, customers are applauding our commitment to our vision, thanking us for standing on principal, commending us for taking action against the inhumane treatment of animals and congratulating us for standing by our business values.”