Alex Markels a writer for US News & World Report made the following observations regarding the success of Chipotle Mexican Grill, a high volume fast casual concept.
A Tested Recipe: Five Ingredients
Five lessons for start-ups from Chipotle Mexican Grill
By Alex Markels
Posted January 9, 2008
It’s the food, stupid. Its hip surroundings and green ethic notwithstanding, Chipotle succeeds because its food tastes better than the competition’s. Customers pay an average of about $9 for the privilege.
Keep it simple! With just three menu items, Chipotle takes advantage of a straightforward production process that keeps costs low.
Fast is still important. As good as Chipotle’s burritos taste, customers won’t line up for them if the line doesn’t move quickly. And now they can preorder their food online.
There’s always room for improvement. Chipotle upgrades ingredients and processes. Example: ceo Steve Ells found that salsa tastes better when onions are cut by hand instead of by machine.
Embrace your “enemy.” Ells shrugged off investment bankers and venture capitalists in favor of McDonald’s to grow the business. The chain helped with purchasing and distribution, too.
I’d have to disagree with Mr. Markels first point. While Chipotle does offer better ingredients than Taco Bell and some other fast food, it can’t touch the quality of food put out by authentic Mexican fast food restaurants. I don’t taste the real chiles in the meat (though they’re certainly there in the sauces), and there are some authentic Mexican seasonings I don’t taste in the meat such as cinnamon. I still think their food is good, but I would put them barely in the top 50% of what’s available in my area and many others that I’ve been to as far as food quality goes. They only rank just above the other fast food chains, but below the fast food independents. I will say that their sauces suit my personal taste though.
I would replace “It’s the food, stupid” with two other reasons for success. “It’s the marketing” and “It’s the business model”. Chipotle’s concept design as a “fast casual” themed restaurant instead of “fast food” made it a market leader (once McDonalds gave them the money to go national). They gave customers a better atmosphere to eat Mexican fast food, and they were the first in the market, something that is very important to be a market leader. At the time, this gave them a unique selling proposition, something else extremely important to success.
They are also “masters of the promotion”, and find ingenious ways to attract people to their restaurant on less than well known “holidays” such as Tax Day, April 15th, where many Chipotles handed out mock tax forms called the “BurritoEZ”, which customers could fill out for a free burrito.
The “green” building practice is also a function of marketing, as well as their emphasis on the integrity of their purchasing practices, which get’s promoted in their stores.
Their business model is another huge reason for their success. The single most important aspect of achieving an incredible growth rate is having a business model that offers an incredible return on investment. Partnering with a company with “unlimited” resources like McDonalds doesn’t hurt either, but that partnership wouldn’t have happened if Chiptle didn’t already have a business model that made it a great investment, in a segment (Mexican) that was growing fiercely. Another good example of a company whose marketing and business model overshadow the food they are so proud of is Subway. When you can return an investors total investment in 2 to 3 years, you are going to have a lot more investors interested in opening your concept. In Chipotle’s case, instead of franchising, they attracted McDonalds as a business partner, whose capital grew them from 14 stores to 500 stores. The food didn’t facilitate that, there’s plenty of better fast Mexican food out there. Neither did demand for their product, they were a very small chain when McDonalds got involved. Brilliant marketing and an attractive business model is what made them in my opinion.