By Becky Krystal
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.