Burritos Never Die: Chipotle Revisited

“If my survival caused another to perish, than death would be sweeter and more beloved.”

Last we were met, I was gathering the stones required to assemble a cairn in preparation for the possible demise of Chipotle. I could only relish as the self-righteous brand took mighty blows. Yet, it seems the beast would survive longer than anticipated. (Damn it!) People enjoy their burritos, it would seem. However, it has incurred several more traumas as it struggles to recuperate.

To recoup lost revenue after the foodborne illness incidents, the fast-casual giant gave away free burritos, created a love story, and promised to make sure foodborne illnesses will never endanger customers ever again. I had once read on the internet that Chipotle had been so desperate for business, it planned to offer a complimentary beer with every burrito. Wouldn’t that be nice?

This week, it’s giving out free chips and guacamole to celebrate its newest claim: it is the only chain in the United States that doesn’t use preservatives. (Now, there’s even a rapping tortilla.) Even with such a gracious incentive, I am still not tempted to venture out of my way for Chipotle.

As I mentioned before, Chipotle isn’t out of trouble yet. A $2.2 billion lawsuit—one could buy a fuck-ton of burritos with that kind of cash—now threatens the company’s livelihood. The story goes that some photographer working for Chipotle snapped a few pictures of the plaintiff, Leah Caldwell, used the photographs to decorate several restaurants, and has profited from them without permission over a nine-year period. Ouch. Part of me hopes Ms. Caldwell wins. Part of me hopes the courts will dismiss this case.

To demonstrate how far off the beaten path lawsuits can become, we only need to look at the three gentlemen accusing Chipotle of intentional deception this past November:

The class-action lawsuit, which was filed last week in Los Angeles, claims that the men ate chorizo burritos at three different locations earlier this month where signs for the product indicated that it contained 300 calories… After consuming the hefty burritos, however, the men realized that the flour tortilla with pork sausage that can also include rice, beans, guacamole and cheese, was way higher in caloric content than advertised. According to the complaint, plaintiff David Desmond “felt excessively full and realized that the burrito couldn’t have been just 300 calories.”

What is this if not the epitome of frivolousness?

If the experiences of the plaintiffs are true, I shall refrain from exploring their collective ineptitude, for it should be readily apparent. I would only hope the courts extend a massive legal middle finger to the cretins. Instead, I would rather focus on the company’s CEO, Steve Ells.

You read that correctly. Monty Moran, Ells’ co-CEO since 2009, retired at the beginning of this year. One could hardly blame Moran for abdicating his responsibilities in light of recent lawsuits and bombardments by E. coli and Norovirus. However, Moran’s departure is palpably more invidious than that. The board of directors at Chipotle felt Ells alone would return Chipotle to its former glory with his “high standards” and “unyielding commitment.” I suppose it’s safe to say that Moran just wasn’t up to snuff.

Even before Ells became reunited with his complete power, the fast-casual magnate scrambled to salvage his—I thought mortally—wounded empire. I was confused by one thing he did. In a rather curious move, Ells scrutinized, if not berated, the image of his restaurants not only during a time when Chipotle desperately needs to restore its image but also when Ells himself had fought so hard maintain a flawless facade. In his diatribe, Ells lamented slow service speeds and the slovenly appearance of dining rooms, among other things. Perhaps this is the type of thoroughgoing individual required to lift the burrito purveyor from the ashes.

Since Ells’ reascension, moreover, four board members announced they would not remain with the burrito chain, some of whom have been with the company eighteen-plus years. Although none of them gave an official reason, the directors went out of their way to insist that their departure was neither coerced nor related to the recent turmoil. Please keep in mind, these are the same directors who declared that Ells could turn Chipotle around. O ye, of little faith! Nevertheless, change is certainly afoot.

Some say Chipotle has its worst days behind it. I’m weary of such analyses, especially when uttered from biased parties, namely shareholders whose wealth depends on the success of the company. (I suspect a similar claim could be lobbed at me, but in the reverse.) I don’t know whether all these changes will restore people’s faith in Chipotle. I do know that I still have those stones ready should Chipotle fail.