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Brian Niccol's Taco Bell-ization of Chipotle results in positive trends for the fast-casual joint

6 months ago by Joshua Fruhlinger in Markets

In February 2019, Chipotle Mexican Grill ($NYSE:CMG) added its 2,500th store, signaling a new era of expansion and modernization for the fast-casual pioneer. This came after several years of uncertainty stemming from food quality issues and a flurry of competition in the now-ubiquitous fast-casual space.

Chipotle, under the leadership of ex-Taco Bell ($NYSE:YUM) CEO Brian Niccol, has done just about everything right when it comes to modernization. Restaurants have streamlined in-store pickup for online orders, including drive-up pickup lanes where possible. On the in-store technology side, Chipotle implemented digitized "make lines" that guide staff through orders in roughly 1,000 stores.

But the real story here lies in the data.

It turns out that not only has Niccol brought his Taco Bell efficiencies to the storefront, but also to the menu. Chipotle, once considered a pricier, non-fast-food option, has kept its prices low enough to become attractive to the fast-food crowd. In other words, Niccol didn't just bring Taco Bell leadership: be brought Taco Bell prices.

The results are happier customers, a better experience, and increased sales. And the proof is in the company's stated plans to open as many as 155 new restaurants in 2019.

According to Chipotle's own store locators, it has now surpassed 2,500 restaurants worldwide, with a particular focus on well-populated areas where potential customers won't bat an eye at $10 burritos bowls.

Taco-bell-like pricing while remaining true to Chipotle core

But pricing at Chipotle has held steady, with the average menu price only 6 cents higher than this time last year. That certainly has made the restaurant an attractive alternative to more-expensive choices in the fast-casual space.

However, individual items, especially some of the more popular and healthy items, saw a ten-cent increase last fall, including salads with chicken.

Carnitas salads saw a similar jump in price.

But wait: while Niccols and Co. raised the price of the more affluent-friendly salads, they only raised taco prices a nickel, keeping the average price below $3, with an average price of just $2.96. That's only 50 cents more than a grilled steak taco at — you guessed it — Taco Bell.

And for those who are looking for something healthy — or vegan (or both) — all while keeping prices Taco Bell-like, there's the sofritas taco which, like the Steak Taco, only saw a price increase of a nickel, averaging out at just $2.63 all said and done.

Meanwhile, Taco Bell is busy updating some of its restaurants with a "Cantina Power Menu" that includes "Power Bowls" that should look quite familiar to Chipotle regulars.

It seems that while Chipotle and Taco Bell appear to be converging in menu, Chipotle's nascent as the harbinger of fast-casual combined with the ex-Taco Bell CEO is giving it a much-needed edge.

Social remains steady, if a bit slow

On two final alternative-data fronts, Chipotle's social media trends are somewhat flat but reflective of an overall industry trend. Foot traffic as measured by Facebook "Were Here" counts shows a bit of a plateau after years of growth.

Meanwhile, mentions of the brand as measure by Facebook "Talking About" counts have cooled. In the case of Chipotle, however, this may be a good thing. Chipotle's biggest day of mentions on Facebook — July 12, 2016 — happened right after an E. coli outbreak sickened more than 50 people and sent the chain's same-store sales tumbling 30%.

For Chiptole, this may be a case of "no mentions are good mentions".

About the Data: 

Thinknum tracks companies using information they post online - jobs, social and web traffic, product sales and app ratings - and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales. 

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Joshua Fruhlinger

Joshua has been writing about technology, lifestyle, and business for over 20 years. He's one of the original writers and editors for Engadget, and still writes a...

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