Why Chipotle’s Southeast Asian chain couldn’t make it work

March 16, 2017

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By Becky Krystal
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/going-out-guide/wp/2017/03/11/why-chipotles-southeast-asian-chain-couldnt-make-it-work/?utm_term=.7c03019833f5

All 15 locations of ShopHouse, the Southeast Asian fast-casual restaurant owned by Chipotle, will close on March 17. The closings, first reported by Nation’s Restaurant News on Thursday, left fans distraught.

But it was easy to see the move coming after Chipotle announced in October that it was halting investments in the brand. Instead, the burrito giant’s spinoff aspirations will focus on two other endeavors: Pizzeria Locale and Tasty Made, a pizza joint and a burger place, respectively. “We just didn’t believe that ShopHouse warranted continued investment,” Chris Arnold, a spokesperson for Chipotle, said in an email.

ShopHouse, which opened its first location in 2011 in Dupont Circle, offered customizable rice, noodle and salad bowls inspired by the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. It represented a glimmer of hope for diners interested in something different and at least marginally more nutritious than what was served at most fast-casual chains.

But selling Southeast Asian cuisine proved to be a losing gamble in an industry dominated by burgers and sandwiches. The top 10 quick-service and fast-casual brands, as ranked by U.S. sales in 2016’s QSR 50, an annual list published by industry publication QSR magazine, don’t include any restaurants serving Asian cuisine. The list is topped by the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, Burger King and Taco Bell.

Even when QSR broke out supposed “ethnic” brands — the label is a bit of a stretch — the results aren’t that impressive. Taco Bell was ranked at No. 5; further down the list are Chipotle (12), Panda Express (22), Qdoba (34), Del Taco (37) and Moe’s Southwest Grill (43). Only one Asian concept made the top 50: Panda Express, a chain perhaps best known for its fried, sticky orange chicken, which is a far cry from ShopHouse’s grilled steak seasoned with fish sauce, or its sweet and sour tamarind vinaigrette.

Those Southeast Asian flavors were unfamiliar to many Americans. Darren Tristano, president of market research firm Technomic, said that when the brand launched, he believed the biggest challenge would be getting consumers to see that Southeast Asian cuisine wasn’t outside the norm. “When your core focus is on that, it just makes it very, very difficult,” he said. He points to Mexican, Italian and Chinese as the big three when it comes to popular international flavors, while Japanese and Greek make the cut to a lesser extent.

In an interview last year with The Post, ShopHouse brand director and co-founder Tim Wildin said he wanted to work with traditional Asian ingredients, noting that Thai flavors in particular had a universal appeal. He acknowledged there was a bit of a learning curve when customers complained the food was too spicy. But there wasn’t necessarily a need to “Americanize” the food, he said, just a need to communicate better.

ShopHouse probably could have improved its communication in at least one other way, said Sam Oches, editorial director of Food News Media, which produces QSR magazine. He said the brand didn’t do enough to promote itself as innovative and unique, which is ironic given the way Chipotle was able to establish a reputation as a trailblazer in the industry.

ShopHouse was “pretty ahead of the curve,” Oches said, adding that Asian fast-casual restaurants are now increasingly popular with millennials.

In the last five years, several have opened in Washington, including Buredo, SeoulSpice, Maki Shop and Four Sisters Grill. Had ShopHouse debuted now, or even just a few years later than it did, it would have entered a market still lacking immediate competitors but perhaps one more receptive to its food. Oches expects that 10 or 15 years from now, the top 10 quick-service brands may not look too different from today, but the rest of the list will likely include more concepts serving Asian cuisine, which are just now scaling up to compete.

ShopHouse may also have partially been a victim of Chipotle’s greater struggles. Following outbreaks of food-borne illness at its restaurants, the company has seen a sharp decline in sales. From 2015 to 2016, revenue dropped more than 13 percent, to $3.9 billion, according to the company’s most recent earnings report, released last month. The decrease in net income was staggering, from about $476 million in 2015 to around $23 million in 2016. “It’s startling how far their fall from grace has been,” Oches said of the brand he described as once being the most bankable restaurant company in America.

[A year after food safety scares, Chipotle has a new set of problems]

Jettisoning ShopHouse may be at least one way the burrito chain is attempting to trim the fat and refocus on its core business, especially considering that, at the time the company announced it was pulling back on ShopHouse, Chipotle chairman and chief executive Steve Ells said that the concept “was not able to attract sufficient customer loyalty and visit frequency to make it a viable growth strategy.”

While ShopHouse only launched a small family of locations, the expansion might have actually made success more difficult to achieve, Technomic’s Tristano said. ShopHouse may have worked best as a single location or limited regional chain, he said, especially as the fast-casual market matures, with possibly not enough customers to go around.

Instead, the brand was diluted between two coasts, with eight locations in the Washington area, five locations in California and another two around Chicago. Had it been able to establish itself as a major player with good recognition in one region, it could have performed better, Tristano said.

But the locations also speak to the demographics that prompted Wildin to pick Washington for the first ShopHouse: urban, diverse, young professionals. Limited appeal, in other words, was baked into the concept before it was barely off the ground.


Striking While the Tortilla Warmer is Hot

October 5, 2016

dostoroslogo-bd9115b9

By David Farkas
http://restfinance.com/Restaurant-Finance-Across-America/October-2016/Striking-While-the-Tortilla-Warmer-is-Hot/

Mendocino Farms co-founders Mario Del Pero and wife Ellen Chen have put their money where many mouths are. Last month, the couple invested an undisclosed sum in Dos Toros, a 11-unit New York City-based taqueria chain that plans to expand to Chicago next year. “There is an unbelievable runway for them [to grow],” Del Pero declared in a recent interview.

The timing of the investment is no accident. Investors have been scouting for a viable investment vehicle in the category given the troubles at beleaguered Chipotle Mexican Grill. “I think that with the decline in traffic to Chipotle, the opportunity for other restaurants to capture share and support their desire for flavorful Mexican fare is very high,” Technomic Inc. President Darren Tristano told the Monitor. The market research firm expects Mexican fast-casual to grow 8% overall in 2016.

Del Pero and Chen invested alongside Managing Director Nick Marsh of GrowthPoint Partners, which last month made a $10 million minority investment in Dos Toros. Marsh, an early investor in the Studio City, Calif.-based premium sandwich chain, is also CEO of Chopt Creative Salad Company. “He’s a close restaurant friend that we trust,” Del Pero said.

Although Del Pero declined to reveal how much capital the couple put up, he acknowledged it was their own money. Still, he added, he sought permission for the investment from private equity firm Catterton, which has a substantial stake in 13-unit Mendocino Farms. “We made it very clear that we’re just investors, though we are a sounding board for Leo and Oliver,” Del Pero explained.

Brothers Leo and Oliver Kremer founded Dos Toros (“two bulls” in Spanish) in 2009, slowly opening units in Manhattan and Brooklyn until they added a second line in store in a busy Manhattan food-court two years ago. The addition has allowed new units to serve 450 people an hour.

Del Pero wouldn’t comment on Dos Toros AUVs or unit economics but claimed Dos Toros unit sales rivaled Chipotle’s. Before the chain’s food-poisoning problems, CMG reported volumes of $2.5 million. Dos Toros reportedly rang up $20 million in 2015.

He also said the couple would likely offer Dos Toros advice on catering and procurement as the brand scales outside New York City. “We think there is opportunity in catering. So that’s one of the things we can help with,” Del Pero offered.


Is Chipotle really America’s ’emotionally abusive boyfriend?’

February 25, 2016

Grace E. Cutler
FoxNews.com
February 18, 2016
http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2016/02/18/chipotle-survival-part-joke/

 

Chipotle has been the brunt of jokes and hit by lawsuits, but some experts are predicting positive growth figures as early as the end of the year. (AP)

Chipotle has been the brunt of jokes and hit by lawsuits, but some experts are predicting positive growth figures as early as the end of the year. (AP)

On Sunday, TV host and comedian John Oliver skewered Chipotle over its food safety problems.

The host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” called Chipotle “America’s preferred over-the-counter laxative.”

He ran down a list of Chipotle’s problems over the past months, including E. Coli, salmonella and norovirus outbreaks. He also had a mock promo showing mice scurrying over food and cited a fake report about a live bird living in a Florida Chipotle as recently as January.

About America’s continued love of the chain, Oliver quips:

“They know it’s bad and they want it even more: Chipotle is now officially America’s emotionally abusive boyfriend.”

“That’s harsh,” Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food research firm said about Oliver’s comment. “They shouldn’t be left off the hook, but they deserve the chance to really get back on track.”

Over the weeks, Chipotle has been the target of jokes and critics alike –and rightly so.

The Food and Drug Administration reports 55 people were infected with E. Coli alone across the U.S., which resulted in 21 reported hospitalizations. The chain is now the focus of a criminal investigation by the FDA and it has been slapped with a slew of lawsuits. The latest one –this week–is from a shareholder suing Chipotle, alleging the fast food chain made false and misleading statements about its business to investors.

Chipotle isn’t the only food supplier to have a major outbreak of food-poisoning. In the 1993, Jack in the Box had an E.Coli crisis stemming from undercooked beef patties. More recently, Blue Bell ice cream experienced a listeria outbreak, which forced the tubs off of store shelves. Both companies were able to fix their problems and turn their image around.

But Chipotle’s marketing has centered on the idea that it makes a high quality food. These outbreaks, and Chipotle’s problems in tracing the source, puts that question.

As way help its tarnished image, Chipotle earlier this month closed more than 2,000 locations to get employees up to speed on changes to its food safety measures. It also announced a $10 million investment in local farmers that supply ingredients to the food company. To help build some media buzz around these efforts, chains gave away free burritos.

The give-away was “clearly part of a much larger plan to rebuild trust with the customers,” Bruce Hennes, managing partner of Hennes Communications, a crisis communications firm based in Cleveland, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Just how long it will take for the company turn around public opinion is still unclear, but some experts are predicting positive growth figures as early as the end of the year.

Is that’s hard to believe? Tristano says not really, given the “overwhelming” loyalty they have with some customer groups, especially the 18-35 male demographic.

“Our research indicates that American consumers are very forgiving with restaurant brands they are loyal to and have developed both an affinity and frequency with,” said Tristano.

So is Chipotle America’s “emotionally abusive boyfriend?” Sounds like for some, it’s more like a relationship on the mend.


The chips are down for Chipotle, but not for long

February 11, 2016

by Todd Wasserman
Campaign
http://www.campaignlive.com/article/chips-down-chipotle-not-long/1383083

In 2013, Chipotle released a haunting animated video featuring a scarecrow that observes the horrors of automated farming. Set to Fiona Apple’s rendition of “Pure Imagination,” the ad went on to win CAA Marketing a Grand Prix at Cannes the following year.

Before the Cannes judges weighed in, though, Funny or Die did with a damning parody changing the tune to “Pure Manipulation” and offering a cynical analysis of Chipotle’s marketing. “We can say what we want. In our world of pure imagination,” went the lyrics. “Just pretend we’re your friends. It’s what we want you to believe.”

Funny or Die’s blistering critique did little to hurt Chipotle’s appeal. Instead, several incidents of food-borne illnesses over the past few months have exposed the chasm between the chain’s brand promise and the realities of running a large-scale restaurant operation. It’s safe to say, at least, that Chipotle won’t be trumpeting its “food with integrity” mantra for a while or criticizing rivals for their factory farming practices.

Because of its healthy financials and sheer size — the company’s market cap is around $14 billion — few expect Chipotle to go the way of Chi-Chi’s, another Mexican chain that closed its doors in 2004 after it unknowingly perpetuated a hepatitis A outbreak that killed four people.

That prognosis for Chipotle, however, assumes that the worst of the crisis is over. Going forward, Chipotle will source more of its food from major suppliers, mooting a prime differentiator from other fast-food chains. The company is also planning to launch a new branding and PR campaign to woo back its Millennial base. Already, a burrito giveaway designed to appease customers after the chain closed its doors briefly Monday for companywide safety meeting has overshadowed concerns about food-borne illnesses, at least on social media. (Reps from Chipotle and agency GSD&M could not be reached for comment.)  Experts predict that Chipotle will likely end up in the clear.

The damage so far
Almost 500 people have gotten sick from Chipotle food since last June, 20 of whom were ill enough to be hospitalized. One such customer, Chris Collins of Portland, Ore., experienced bloody stools and excruciating pain after ingesting E. coli 026 from one of Chipotle’s chicken bowls. At one point, his doctors feared kidney failure. Though that never came to pass, Collins was still weak and “emotionally shaky” in December, according to a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Such stories have hurt Chipotle’s bottom line and brand image. In early February, the chain said sales at established restaurants fell by a third in January. That news followed a 15% drop in the fourth quarter of 2015. At this writing, the company’s stock price was down about 42% from its 52-week high.

On the brand side, Chipotle’s image has gone from positive to negative. YouGov’s BrandIndex, which surveys 5,000 consumers online every day, rates brands on a buzz score that ranges from -100 to +100, with zero being a neutral position. For most of 2015, Chipotle’s buzz score was around +10, but in January, that sunk to -29 and was at -27 at this writing.

“Chipotle has been playing catch up on this crisis from the start,” says Ted Marzilli, CEO of BrandIndex. “The brand was slow to respond to the initial incident. [It has] just not been able to get out ahead of this crisis, and fairly or unfairly, is paying the price in both public perception and decreased sales.”

The six-month rule
Despite the challenges though, few people see this as a fatal blow to the chain. In a research note to clients, Wells Fargo analyst Jeff Farmer cited previous incidents of food-borne illnesses at other national chains to demonstrate same-store sale declines can be cut in half six months after the incidents occur (assuming that there are no more incidents). Farmer added that same-store sales of such affected companies can also rise 12-15 months after the incident.

In an interview with Campaign, Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, food industry consultancy, cited the same rule. “Our research indicates that in six months, most consumers forget about these food-poisoning issues that come up,” he said.

The Blue Bell Effect
In Chipotle’s case, that’s a pretty safe bet. Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis PR expert, says that Chipotle has built up so much good will with its branding efforts that it can withstand this major PR setback. He compared Chipotle to Blue Bell, the ice cream brand that is so beloved by its fans that many were able to overlook a recent outbreak of listeria linked to the brand.

“Customers’ loyalty to a brand can make a huge difference in overcoming even food illness-related crises and people really stuck with Blue Bell a long time after many would have done the same — given a choice of other ice creams,” he said. “With Chipotle, they created such good will before these problems that although that’s been eroded, it’s not terminal at this point.”

Rebeca Arbona, executive director at Interbrand, unconsciously echoing Funny or Die’s critique, noted that brand loyalty is based on a relationship that mimics real friendship. “You have many impressions and interactions,” she said. “That works in your brain like knowing a person. If you know a person really well and you like them, you’re going to forgive them a lot.” Arbona said that she was surprised, for instance, that Toyota not only weathered its 2009-2010 slew of recalls — issues that were linked to the deaths of some consumers — but has nearly doubled its brand value since then.

That said, Tristano said that it’s likely that some customers will never return to Chipotle. Most will though. “Younger customers will return,” he said. “They tend to be more trusting and more brand loyal. If we look at this, it is clearly a setback for a brand that has had nothing but success in the industry.” The fact that this happened to a brand whose credo is “food with integrity” is ironic, Tristano said, but won’t prompt the masses to label it hypocritical.

Fixing the brand
As Marzilli noted, Chipotle didn’t deal with the crisis effectively at first. Though the company closed 43 restaurants in the Northwest after the E. coli outbreak that affected Chris Collins became public, some 234 customers and employees contracted norovirus at a Simi Valley, Calif., location in August. That same month, some 64 people in Minnesota fell ill from salmonella-tainted tomatoes.

It wasn’t until Dec. 10 that Chipotle CEO and founder Steve Ells appeared on the “Today” show to apologize to customers who had gotten sick from eating at the chain. On the operations side, Chipotle hiredMansour Samadpour, head of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Seattle, to overhaul the company’s food safety efforts. Among the changes: More food will be prepared at commissaries, rather than on site, undercutting Chipotle’s “food with integrity” mantra since often the food won’t be local and fresh. Food will also be given high-resolution DNA-based tests, a measure that will weed out smaller suppliers who can’t afford that expense. On the PR side, Arbona said closing all the stores for a few hours was a good move. “It was a symbolic act,” she said. “They were hitting reset.”

Allen Adamson, a branding consultant, said that Chipotle will have to ditch its previous brand communication, which struck a lighthearted tone and presented a somewhat holier-than-thou image related to food quality. “You want to see the CEO on screen talking about what they’re doing, not an actor saying ‘Trust us,’ ” Adamson said.

Bernstein said Chipotle should focus on transparency, training its personnel in the new food safety protocol and setting realistic expectations “that they’ll do their best to prevent illness, but particularly with norovirus, it’s not always possible.”

What might be fatal, aside from more outbreaks, is any communication that smacks of arrogance. As we’ve seen in recent years, consumers will overlook safety issues, even ones that result in deaths, as long as the company doesn’t talk down to them. As a counter example, Arthur Andersen, the financial consultant, was drummed out of existence after it got caught up in the Enron scandal in 2002. While that was a huge blow, execs at the company exacerbated the damage by behaving arrogantly during a Justice Department grilling. “They got tried in the court of public opinion,” Bernstein said.

Chipotle is unlikely to make the same mistake. “Ultimately it comes down to humility,” Bernstein said. “If they can express sufficient humility, people will forgive them.”

Read more at http://www.campaignlive.com/article/chips-down-chipotle-not-long/1383083#AVGB4yq6reisiIhh.99


U.S. Taco Closes: Taco Bell Shutters Experimental Upscale Eatery in Huntington Beach

September 28, 2015

Nancy Luna
Tribune Content Agency, LLC
(c)2015 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
http://www.ocregister.com/articles/taco-683078-bell-restaurant.html

Taco Bell has closed U.S. Taco Co., an experimental fast-casual restaurant that failed to generate the kind of foot traffic needed to sustain the year-old Huntington Beach taco eatery.

The upscale “American taco” concept was the chain’s attempt to win the taste buds of sophisticated fast-casual eaters. But the Irvine-based chain cited “lower than anticipated foot traffic” and “hurdles securing alcohol permits” as challenges contributing to its decision to close U.S. Taco.

The Day of the Dead-themed eatery, at 150 5th St., closed Thursday.

Taco Bell said the closure allows the company to focus on Taco Bell Cantina, the company’s new urban concept that caters to its next generation of customers — millennials. The first cantina restaurant, which will offer an enhanced Taco Bell menu along with beer, wine and alcohol-infused slushie beverages, opens Tuesday in Chicago.

The next cantina will open later this month in San Francisco. Taco Bell said they are incorporating successful features from U.S. Taco — its open kitchen layout and edgy design — into new concepts like cantina. And, despite its closure, future U.S. Taco restaurants may open, the chain said.

“U.S. Taco Co. remains a fantastic concept, and was very successful as a place to experiment and learn,” Taco Bell Chief Executive Brian Niccol said.

Last year, Taco Bell unveiled U.S. Taco., a slick counter-service eatery attempting to appeal to non-Taco Bell eaters with disposable income. Jumping into the fast-growing $34 billion fast-casual space, the experimental restaurant featured a menu of American-inspired tacos, milkshakes and seasoned fries. Each taco was a twist on a classic regional dish — from an East Coast lobster roll to Texas-style brisket.

But from its inception, U.S. Taco ran into one major hitch.

The original “taproom” business model included a menu of craft beer and wine. But the eatery, located in the city’s bar heavy downtown, was unable to secure an alcohol license when it opened. The restaurant was finally able to secure a permit this summer.

Restaurant industry analyst Darren Tristano said brands “moving upscale” face challenges, including higher operating costs and higher price points.

Adding alcohol to your menu also is tough: “Adult beverage is not in (Taco Bell’s) DNA so it can be a difficult transition,” said Tristano of Chicago-based Technomic.

Tristano, who had visited U.S. Taco during visits to California, said legacy brands like Taco Bell should be true to their brand. In the case of Taco Bell, that’s “convenient, consistent, high value and indulgent crave able food.”


Asian Concepts Poised for High Unit rowth this Year

November 25, 2014

New data from Technomic forecasts a 2.3-percent unit growth rate over 2013 among the 500 largest US restaurant chains.

According to a news release, this will be slightly higher than the 2.1-percent growth rate from 2012-13 and much higher than the 0.5 percent rate in 2009.

The unit growth is rising in both the full and limited-service segments. Technomic EVP Darren Tristano said fast casual concepts will continue to show high levels of unit growth, as well limited and full-service Asian concepts. Among full-service restaurant menu segments, Asian will increase units by 5.1 percent, followed by seafood (3.9 percent) and steak (3.4 percent).

Asian/noodle also leads the limited-service menu segments, increasing unit counts by 8 percent, while bakery cafes and coffee cafes will grow units by 5.2 and 4.2 percent, respectively.

Many full-service brands have positioned themselves to expand this past year. The largest growth has been at Buffalo Wild Wings, which will have added 65 units, Mellow Mushroom (32 units) and LongHorn Steakhouse (24 units), according to Technomic.

In limited service, Subway will add 908 units by year-end, followed by Starbucks (443), Jimmy Johns (350) and Dunkin Donuts (291).

Fast casual to continue double-digit sales bump
Additionally, limited-service restaurants are expected to gain a sales bump of 3.5 percent. Fast casual chains should experience a 10.8-percent increase in sales, while quick-service chains increase 2.3 percent.

Full-service restaurants will experience a 2.5 percent sales increase in 2014, similar to the 2.4 percent increase in 2013.

Fine dining is expected to continue its post-Recession rebound, with a 5.8-percent sales increase. Casual and midscale restaurant growth will be nominal, at 2.8 and 0.5 percent, respectively.

Q3 traffic gains at Mexican concepts
Additionally, research from The NPD Group analyzed Q3 consumer traffic at US restaurants, and shows an increase in the fast casual segment, as well as at coffee/donut/bagel concepts and Mexican concepts.

Fast casual restaurants posted an 8 percent gain in traffic across all dayparts compared to same quarter year ago. Visits to Mexican quick service and coffee/donut/bagel concepts grew by 5 percent, according to NPD’s foodservice market research.

Conversely, hamburger quick-service traffic, which represents the largest share of quick service visits at 23 percent, declined by 3 percent compared to same quarter year ago. Visits to both sandwich concepts and Asian quick-serve restaurants were down 1 percent.

Although total industry traffic was flat in the quarter, consumer spending rose 3 percent in the July/August/September quarter due to average eater check gains. Check and dollar gains are in line with food away-from-home inflation. Dealing/discounts are still supporting traffic with visits on a deal up 4 percent compared to a decline in non-deal visits.

“Although total traffic is flat, the visit growth in the fast casual, coffee/donut/bagel, and Mexican QSR shows that consumers still have an interest in going out to restaurants,” NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said in a news release. “Those restaurant concepts that are meeting the needs of today’s foodservice consumers will win their visits.”