While many will be familiar with the chain’s eponymous burrito, few are aware that Chipotle was not founded to sell a great hulking mass of meat, beans and rice, but rather on the back of its founder’s passion for cooking and his goal of changing the way people think about fast food.
When Steve Ells, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, founded Chipotle more than 20 years ago he felt that he could apply what he had learned as a chef to elevate the traditional fast food experience. What started as a focus on fresh ingredients evolved over time into an awareness of the different forms of exploitation inherent in traditional fast food.
Chipotle has distinguished itself from the rest of the fast-food industry by relying on “naturally raised” meat that is antibiotic- and hormone-free, by dropping trans fats from its cooking before doing so was in vogue, and by offering organically certified beans and avocados. “It’s the responsible thing to do,” says Ells. Other chains reheat frozen items in a mechanized system. At Chipotle, Ells points out, “We’re actually cooking. If you walk into the refrigerator, you’ll see fresh onions and peppers and raw meat that isn’t tenderized or treated in any way.”
Chipotle’s Food with Integrity movement has driven every decision made at the company since they adopted it as their mission more than 10 years ago. At the time, Chipotle challenged a number of ad agencies to make Food with Integrity a meaningful sales proposition. When none of them could, Ells fired them all and took their marketing in-house.
The path to purpose is clearly the path to profit for Chipotle. This unusual approach in the fast food industry has earned many admirers and customers. Eschewing traditional advertising in favor of storytelling and educational narratives about the food industry with such viral sensations as The Scarecrow, an animated short viewed on YouTube more than 14 million times, and their recent foray into cable television with Farmed and Dangerous, a four part mini-series, Chipotle is building trust and revenue.
In the last two years, they have grown from 1,350 stores to more than 1,700 today, increased revenue from $2.5b to $3.6b in the same time frame, and a $1000 investment in Chipotle stock when they floated in 2007 would be worth $16,500 at today’s price. Being in the business of empowering people to positively affect food culture is a bigger idea than burritos and bowls, and one that Chipotle’s customers are clearly behind. The numbers don’t lie.
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Barry Chandler is the co-founder of Storyforge, a brand strategy company focused on helping companies discover their purpose to allow them achieve their vision, build preference and drive margin. Barry has been building award-winning businesses since launching his first company in Ireland in 2003. His last company, a digital marketing agency, was acquired in 2012 by a California-based publicly traded entertainment company which then hired him as Chief Marketing Officer. It is his belief that the greatest brands seek to change the world, improving the lives of their associates, partners and customers.