Chipotle’s Golden Age Is Over. What Changed?

The thing that set Chipotle apart from fast-food competitors for so long—it approached cooking like a non-fast-food restaurant—diminished in the aftermath of 2015’s health scares. In that shift, Chipotle became part of the mega-chain masses. At Taco Bell, “avocado paste…is made in giant vats at a factory in Morelia, Mexico, and is then frozen and shipped north in tubs. Ground beef arrives spiced and cooked, in vacuum-sealed bags,” according to The New Yorker. McDonald’s burger patties, churned and shaped through a machine, are delivered to stores flash-frozen. However commonplace, centralized prep “often just nets you out with a kind of subpar product,” says Nikki Freihofer, strategy director at food consultancy Culinary Edge, which consults with restaurants and franchises like Sweetgreen.

In other words, Chipotle may have gotten safer, but it almost certainly didn’t get tastier. For its part, Chipotle says in a statement to Bon Appétit that, in 2022, “the company purchased more than 58.3 million pounds of organic, transitional, and/or locally grown ingredients.” According to the company, “Chipotle buys more local produce than any other restaurant group.”

Waning novelty could also have something to do with a dimming collective perception of Chipotle. The chain’s attempts at churning out buzzy menu items aren’t steering conversation in the way that say, a Popeyes chicken sandwich does. If Taco Bell and Popeyes are dead set on being at the center of every conversation, Chipotle is stuck on the outskirts. It’s not for a lack of effort: A Chipotle spokesperson tells Bon Appétit that Chipotle was “the first restaurant brand to partner with TikTok and first restaurant brand to reach 1 million followers on the platform.” (The chain has recently partnered with TikTok creators to add items to its menu.) As Chipotle has grown in volume but plateaued on the innovation front, competitors like Cava (which many TikTokers herald as superior) “are just more contemporary in terms of what they’re doing with their menu,” Freihofer says, with a range of veggies and sauces and dips that “mirror how a modern consumer eats.”

Freihofer says that a proliferation of specialty taco-focused chains——Velvet Taco, Torchy’s Tacos, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Tacombi, and the like—have also siphoned away a good deal of attention and market share from Chipotle and its peers like Qdoba and Moe’s. Chipotle opened in 1993—the chain is 30 years old (or, like, 200 in dog years). These days it’s the not-so-young-adult surrounded by cool kid chains that know how to use social media to leverage virality.

Still, there’s no better testament to Chipotle’s longevity than its evidently unshakeable bottom line—despite all the discourse, the company’s sales are still on the uptick. Profitable as ever, the brand doesn’t seem to be concerned with reinvention at this point. As for the je ne sais quoi of a 2012 Chipotle burrito bowl? It’s simply unrepeatable.