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.


Does Taco Bell’s Fast-Casual Entry Have a Chance?

April 24, 2014

Taco Bell is following the lead of its YUM! sister brand KFC, which entered the fast-casual market last year. KFC Eleven features hand-crafted food—flatbreads, rice bowls and KFC Boneless Original Recipe Chicken—in a more contemporary environment.

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Taco Bell’s new fast-casual concept, U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Taproom, provides the chain an opportunity to move into fast casual while maintaining its identity and value positioning with existing customers in the quick-service segment. Many brands today are trying to shift toward a more upscale menu, food and atmosphere positioning, but this strategy can confuse loyal customers and make it difficult to stay true to the brand identity. Taco Bell’s strategy makes sense and supports its goal to increase sales from $7 to $14 billion in the U.S. market.

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So what are the challenges this new brand faces?

Competition: In addition to a strong independent Mexican restaurant market, today’s Mexican grill segment features strong category leaders like Chipotle Mexican Grill, Qdoba Mexican Grill and Moe’s Southwest Grill. And there are more than 50 other fast-casual chains competing for share of stomach, many of which are growing aggressively.

Also within the landscape are successful taco shops that are growing from regional roots in California and Texas like Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Torchy’s Tacos and Chronic Tacos. The 2013 limited-service Mexican category totaled $18 billion in sales with more than 18,000 restaurants. With so many competitors in the space, finding room for U.S. Taco Co. will be a challenge for Taco Bell’s young “intrepreneurial” team.

Price: With price points per-person pegged at $11.50‒$12, many economically challenged consumers may not be able to afford to eat at U.S. Taco Co. on a frequent basis. Average fast-casual price points are still south of $10. And with average prices of fast-casual burritos in the $6‒$7 range, consumers will continue to see pound-for-pound value at Mexican grill concepts. Recent Technomic research with consumers indicated that the optimal price at fast casual for lunch was $7.60, with a high price threshold of about $10. At dinner, consumers indicated that $9 was the optimal price, with $12.50 providing the upper threshold limit. As a result, consumers will likely see this U.S. Taco Co. as a place to go for dinner, as its lunch prices are too high for many consumers on weekday occasions.

Menu: Many American consumers have come to expect high levels of “authenticity” around both Mexican and Southwest dishes, sides and beverages. The menu at U.S. Taco Co. will feature the following tacos:

  • The One Percenter, featuring fresh lobster in garlic butter with red cabbage slaw and pico de gallo on crispy fry bread.
  • The “Brotherly Love,” a nod to the Philly Cheesesteak, with carne asada steak, grilled peppers and onions, roasted poblano queso and cotija cheese (rather than Cheez Whiz), and fresh cilantro in a flour tortilla.
  • The “Winner Winner,” which features Southern-style fried chicken breast with “SOB,” or “South of the Border” gravy, roasted corn pico de gallo with fresh jalapenos, and fresh cilantro in a flour tortilla.

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And on the side, guests can get “papas fritas,” which resemble steak fries, coated with habanero dust and served with housemade dipping sauces such as ghost chile ketchup or roasted poblano crema. Guests can also order their fries loaded with taco ingredients sans tortilla as a “secret menu” option.

Taking a page out of Red Robin’s play book, the menu will include shakes spiked with beer, and the brand will eventually offer tap, can and bottled craft beer.

So how will consumers react?

Patience and education will be important to getting consumers to consider an even more Americanized version of a traditional, authentic Mexican taco. Replacing the American burger with a taco served with fries and a shake will be a new behavior for many Americans. Although this new offering will likely have great appeal for Millennial consumers age 21‒36, Gen X and Boomers will likely continue to lean toward more familiar and traditional meals. As innovation and thinking outside the box (or bun in this case) is essential for filling white space, this new format may be a bit ahead of its time.


American Regional Cuisines Make Their Way Across the Pond

March 12, 2013

The U.S. is home to numerous regional cuisines that are often thought of as “ethnic” by U.K. consumers. Among these are Creole, Tex-Mex and regional American barbecue—three American specialities that are all gaining traction in the U.K.

Technomic’s recent U.K. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report found that more than four out of five consumers see Creole cuisine as “ethnic.” Louisiana’s Creole cuisine—dubbed “city cooking” in New Orleans—has its refined French roots. It’s a rich, indulgent style of cooking that incorporates plenty of butter, cream and tomatoes. Most consumers who think Creole is ethnic consider it to be an emerging ethnic cuisine.

More than seven out of 10 U.K. consumers see Tex-Mex fare as “ethnic.” Tex-Mex is Americanised Mexican cuisine, a twist on traditional Mexican fare. More than half of consumers consider Tex-Mex to be mainstream.

And one-third of consumers consider American cuisine to be “ethnic.” Familiar American staples include hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken and deli sandwiches. The vast majority of consumers who identify American fare as “ethnic” say it is mainstream.

ethnic_cuisine

Base: 1,000 consumers aged 18+
Percentages may not equal cumulative percentage due to rounding
Percentages do not add up to 100%. The remaining percentage of consumers do not consider the cuisine to be ethnic.
Source: The U.K. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, Technomic Inc., 2012

The United States is a melting pot of ethnicities. The foods Americans eat are deeply influenced by a vast mix of global cultures and traditions as divergent as European, Native American, Asian and West African, which have come together over centuries to represent something distinctly American. Different cooking styles abound from state to state, such as the regional barbecue methods that span the country. Other distinctive regional American influences are found in Creole cuisine as well as Tex-Mex fare. The following sections look at each of these cuisines and their influence on U.K. menus.

Creole Flavors Rose from the South

Born in the southern state of Louisiana, Creole cuisine is perhaps the first ethnic-fusion cuisine apparent in the United States. Creole cuisine combines Native American, French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, German and Italian influences. Certain elements of this cooking style reflect its refined French roots, resulting in rich and indulgent menu items that often incorporate butter, cream and tomatoes. A variation on this sophisticated cuisine is spicy country-style Cajun, also from Louisiana.

Once beloved only by those living in Louisiana and other parts of the South, Creole foods like gumbo (a traditional roux-based stew), jambalaya (a melange of rice, sausage, chicken and seafood, similar to Spanish paella) and étouffée (a thick and spicy stew served over white rice) now appear widely on restaurant-chain menus across the United States. So do traditional Cajun cooking methods and seasonings, like blackened proteins (meat, chicken or seafood that is heavily crusted with spices and cooked) and spice-rubbed barbecued meats.

The vast majority of American consumers consider these home-grown cuisines to be ethnic. Survey responses for Technomic’s U.S. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report showed that 86% thought of Creole and Cajun cuisines as ethnic.

Louisiana-style regional American cuisine has a tiny niche on restaurant-chain menus in the U.K., suggesting that these cuisines may have room to grow on menus. According to MenuMonitor, Technomic’s exclusive menu database, most of these Louisiana-style items on U.K. menus simply call for Creole or Cajun spices incorporated as a rub for chicken or shrimp, a seasoning for burgers, a flavour for batter or breading, or an accent to mayonnaise or another condiment.

Going forward, the trends for regional Louisiana cuisine will include more experimentation by restaurant chefs in order to showcase not just spice blends, but actual Creole and Cajun specialities. Here are two examples of classic Louisiana-style main courses as seen on the menus of major restaurant chains:

  • Creole Gumbo—served with garlic bread (Bodean’s)
  • Louisiana Cajun Jambalaya—chicken, spicy chorizo, crayfish and rice, in an authentic Creole sauce with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes (Smollensky Bar & Grill)

Tex-Mex: Americanised Mexican

Another distinctive ethnic cuisine in the United States is Tex-Mex, which melds Mexican culinary traditions with the food ingredients and preparations of the Southwestern United States—specifically, the state of Texas. Sprung from the ranching culture of southern Texas and northern Mexico, Tex-Mex fare originated among Tejanos—Texans of Mexican descent. Traditional Mexican ways of cooking were incorporated with North American food products (such as yellow cheeses) that were affordable and readily available, leading to a blended cuisine that has become known as Tex-Mex or Southwestern.

Today, popular Tex-Mex foods include chilli con carne (diced or ground beef with chillies or chilli powder), fajitas (marinated, grilled steak or chicken, cut into strips and served with warm flour tortillas, grilled onions and peppers for diners to assemble into wraps) and nachos—crisp tortilla chips topped with melted cheese (typically cheddar), chopped jalapeño peppers and assorted components ranging from seasoned meat to tomatoes, lettuce and sour cream.

Tex-Mex preparations and flavours have thrived for decades in the U.S., and there are signs that this regional American cuisine has established itself as a menu favourite in the U.K. in recent years. For example, fajitas and nachos are fixtures on many full-service casual-dining menus, and there are even major chains in the U.K. that directly position menu offerings as “Tex-Mex.”

  • Artisserie offers Tex-Mex Chicken Soup
  • Hungry Horse offers a signature Tex-Mex Burger, as well as a Tex-Mex Combo, featuring ribs and chicken
  • Pizza GoGo offers a Tex-Mex starter sampler
  • Wacky Warehouse’s Tex-Mex Criss Cross Fries are topped with guacamole, Heinz tomato salsa and sour cream

American Barbecue Is Deeply Regionalised

In the U.S., barbecue (including smoked pork, beef, chicken, sausages and other proteins—and all of its sauces and accompaniments) is a regionalised cuisine. Ask Americans in one part of the U.S. to describe their favourite barbecue meal, and the answer will differ widely from that of Americans in another part of the country. The Southern-style barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee, differs from a style of barbecue that is beloved in the Midwestern city of St. Louis, which in turn will differ from the barbecue style and barbecue sauces that are traditional in Texas.

Promoting quality and skill of preparation for regional barbecue is a solid trend on North American restaurant menus. There are signs that both brick-and-mortar restaurants and food-truck operators in the U.K. are beginning to underscore regional differences in American barbecue as well. Regionalising barbecue means successfully executing the culinary nuances between “dry” (spice-rubbed, served with no sauce) and “wet” (drenched in barbecue sauce) barbecued meats, as well as distinguishing between sauces—from the thick, molasses-based, sticky barbecue sauces of St. Louis or Kansas City to the thinner, mustard- and vinegar-based sauces of the coastal Carolinas.

For most U.K. operators attempting to operate within this sphere, it is enough at the moment to simply position American barbecue offerings as “Southern,” while also playing up the decidedly British love of roast meat preparations. This positioning works for Pitt Cue, the Southern-inspired barbecue concept that first built a customer base off its food-truck operation before launching a standalone restaurant venture. Pitt Cue offers a British take on Southern-style American barbecue. “Our food is inspired by the Southern United States of America, but as Brits we love to make things our own,” the chain’s website proclaims. “We make all our own sauces and rubs and our meat is cooked low and slow, smoked in-house and finished over charcoal. Our produce is British, ethically sourced, and our menu changes with the British seasons.”

Here are a few examples of mainstream U.K. restaurant chains that are trying to emphasise regional qualities for American-style barbecue in order to build the perception of quality:

  • Bodean’s signature pulled pork shoulder is accompanied by a Carolina-style barbecue sauce
  • Miller & Carter’s St. Louis Ribs are served with an “authentic American barbecue sauce”
  • Tavern Table offers a Memphis Cherry BBQ sauce as a barbecue accent to various items, including rotisserie chicken

Key Takeaway

Consumer interest in and demand for ethnic foods at restaurants and other foodservice locations is on the rise. For operators seeking to differentiate their menus through globally influenced offerings to gain an increased share of consumers’ foodservice spending, American regional cuisines can be a flavourful tool in their arsenal.

Darren Tristano is Senior Managing Director of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.