Letter to the man behind the burrito (commentary)

IF I were to write a letter to Steve Ells, founder and chief executive officer of the successful fast-casual burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, it would read something like the following:

Dear Mr. Ells, I respect your business prowess; you're to be commended for your leadership over the years. You've successfully transformed a business concept into a highly visible, publicly traded corporation (whose market capitalization now hovers at around $13 billion).

Consistent, sustained growth is hard-earned, and few companies possess a track record like Chipotle.

That achievement is the direct result of your vision. By your own admission, "the idea was simple: Demonstrate that food served fast didn't have to be a 'fast-food' experience."

You've never compromised on that concept while sticking by some vital principles; namely, "use high-quality raw ingredients, classic cooking methods and distinctive interior design — features that are more frequently found in the world of fine dining."

Meanwhile, Chipotle has executed the business model with great discipline. Your management team has proved masterful, targeting store locations in key high-traffic areas while also maintaining a long-run commitment to quality and service.

That has resonated well with customers and proved fundamental to establishing return visits, which is especially important given the highly competitive nature of the restaurant industry, especially the fast-casual segment.

But therein lies the rub: It's a highly competitive business. Your competitors are also executing within the same paradigm, or else they'll go out of business.

Food and service aren't enough; there's ongoing pressure to differentiate the business model in some form or fashion to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. I'm sure that reality gave rise to the concept of "Food with Integrity."

However, that claim is misleading. Chipotle's most recent video, "The Scarecrow," defies any promise of integrity and misrepresents agriculture. Worse yet, you take it to a personal level. That is, the video denigrates food producers in the U.S. — the overwhelming majority of whom are highly responsible and conscientious.

It's done in the name of retail food sales, and that's not really surprising. Chipotle openly declares that its "Food with Integrity" pledge has never been an absolute. Rather, you describe it as a "journey," not a destination.

As such, your company can dodge its inability to deliver with qualifiers such as "whenever possible" and "when practical." In reality, it's all about convenience and expediency to generate revenue.

If Chipotle really wanted to implement "Food with Integrity," you'd have an established supply chain backed by third-party verification. That's the only real framework that can provide your customers with substantive assurance of an authentic marketing story. That way, guests would have 100% confidence, 100% of the time, that Chipotle really is different from its competitors.

It's also the only way to back your claim that "there is a better way" for the food system to operate. Implementing such a system would provide food producers with a platform to advocate and communicate their commitment to the supply chain.

However, implementation of such a system is disruptive to your current business model. Store growth and subsequent profitability would have to be curbed from the current pace. It would require Chipotle to be in front of, versus behind, the supply chain to ensure that sales don't outrun available inventory.

Chipotle can't have it both ways and maintain any real credibility. Slandering conventional production while using it to your company's advantage when necessary is disingenuous. As a result, your claim of "integrity" doesn't line up with reality.

Chipotle is leaning heavily on deception and expediency. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Chipotle's only priority is profit — certainly not farmers, ranchers or customers.

Chipotle's success carries with it the responsibility to do the right thing. Clearing the smokescreen would enable Chipotle to take pride in its success. Until then, though, everything you do is questionable. After all, integrity is not a sometime thing; it's all or nothing.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:42

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