In the opening keynote at this week’s Fast Casual Executive Summit, Scott Boatwright, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s chief restaurant officer, shared insight on the fast casual brand’s strategy relating to customer experience, team member experience and why being relevant is critical to success.
In Richmond, Virginia there is a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. employee who exemplifies everything the fast casual brand is all about.
Her name is Rebecca. She’s a single mom who began her restaurant career at an early age and at a time when her world wasn’t stable. She hired on as a crew member and at the time didn’t need just a paycheck, “she needed a pathway to stability and forward movement in her little family’s life.”
That’s how Chipotle Chief Restaurant Officer Scott Boatwright described Rebecca’s early Chipotle employment in his opening keynote address at this week’s virtual Fast Casual Executive Summit, presented by Networld Media Group Inc.
The annual conference, now in its 15th year, draws hundreds of restaurant leaders, executive and experts seeking insight on trends, online learning sessions, and an opportunity to network.
The relevancy mission
Calling Rebecca his friend, Boatwright shared how the young woman, in her job, felt she had become part of something she could trust with her commitment — that if she gave her best it would be seen and worth her time.
“Becca quickly moved from crew member to kitchen manager to general manager and now is on her way to the pinnacle in our operations as a restaurateur. All of this in just the matter of a couple of years,” said Boatwright.
“Becca gave us a lot. She came in every day and committed to being engaged and willing to grow. She knew she had the support and a host of people who truly believed in her,” said Boatwright. “Becca isn’t the story of every team member we encounter but there are stories just like hers happening every day across our restaurants.”
The Chipotle leader shared the story to illustrate how tightly woven the definition of ‘experience’ — whether it’s a customer’s experience or a team member’s experience — is rooted in the brand’s strategies, from product innovation to marketing to digital ordering to human resources.
In his remarks, Boatwright, who began his restaurant career at 15 at a local McDonald’s and took on his Chipotle role in 2017, expressed how there has “never been a more important time to be together,” as a restaurant industry given COVID-19.
“Working at Chipotle has changed my life which is same story we hear from many of our team members from across all levels, across the organization and I consider it a privilege to be part of such an amazing company,” he said.
Amazing may well be an understatement given obstacles Chipotle has hurdled and achievements it has accomplished as a brand.
The pandemic has forever changed the traditional way people experience brands, said Boatwright, sharing financials as evidence: 140% growth in digital, a decline in traditional dine in and growth in platform-based takeout and delivery services.
“[COVID] rapidly catalyzed new habits out of both necessity and guest preference and what exactly was changing it was the relevancy of the product to the guest,” he said, adding relevancy, a word he used throughout his presentation, is at the core of any guest decision.
Relevancy, he explained, relates to why a customer chooses Chipotle — they believe in the product; the convenience and the food is delicious. The more positive ‘whys,’ said Boatwright, establishes a deeper customer comment and that, in turn, translates to relevancy.
“For us, our why, our purpose at Chipotle is to cultivate a better world. Relevancy includes how guests experience a brand’s culture and its people. Its operational foundations are really around how you deliver the experience — your marketing strategy — what does it tell me about your brand and how can you integrate into the larger digital ecosystem and really create convenience for the guest or accessibility,” he said.
He then broke down all the aspects that contribute to a guest connection, from the initial craving to what he said may be the moment of truth — when a customer tries a brand’s food.
The food, farmer connection
One aspect is the brand’s menu which reflects the brand’s purpose.
“Years ago, we set out on a mission to change the way people think about and eat fast food. It’s been our endeavor to bring wholesome nutritious foods to those who otherwise may not have access to great meal,” said Boatwright. “Food with integrity is tantamount to our purpose.. the belief we actually can cultivate a better world.”
The brand, he said, has changed the fast casual game as it relates to ingredients and the fact Chipotle works with farmers who operate with the same intense of integrity Chipotle holds tight.
One is example is how Chipotle dealt with a pig farmer who was violating strict practices in place. The brand removed every pound of product from the supplier from its supply chain and kept it out until the issues were remediated.
“As you can image this caused a carnitas shortage in most of our restaurants but that’s how passionate we are about our promise to our guest,” he said.
The quest of sustainability
In addition to the farmer’s program, Chipotle focuses on how its values in sustainability and protecting the environment manifest themselves in its operations. Boatwright spoke about the brand’s upcycling program — eliminating single use disposables. The main culprit were plastic gloves used by employees and the impact on the waste stream.
“The percentage of waste they made up far outweighed that of plastic straws and through our innovative gloves to bags program we have diverted more than one million gloves from landfills,” he said, adding the upcycled gloves are turned into pellet plastic which are turned into plastic garbage bags used in the same Chipotle restaurants where the gloves are used.
It’s all about people
As illustrated by the story about Becca, Boatwright stressed how invaluable team member experience plays into a rewarding customer experience that leads to increased loyalty.
“Our values include: the line is the moment of truth. The frontline and digital make line is on where all of our hard work is on display for our guests. Literally where the magic happens,” he said, noting it’s about having great culinary, hospitality, accuracy and speed on the line. “That’s what our customers will talk about.”
Chipotle’s value proposition is centered on high quality great tasting food, said Boatwright, a true culinary experience at the QSR price point and with the QSR convenience.
“That value proposition offers an exciting opportunity but we can’t capitalize on it without genuine buy-in from our people so that’s why we invested in our industry leading People Experience program designed to support our people emotionally mentally physically and financially,” he said.
Chipotle’s culture is one in which leadership reaches down “to pull people up to achieve the impossible.” The brand is reducing staff burnout, churn, and management turnover with a series of best practices as well as technology investments that make management tasks less taxing.
“We know how difficult the job of a general manager can be and strive to make the role easier to execute and dramatically reduce churn which helps alleviate burnout. We’ve reduced management turnover by 26% year over year,” he said, adding, “I can’t emphasize enough how important our people experience improvements have played in creating a better culture and more stable work environment and ultimately leading to more profitable operations.”
The marketing strategy
Another core aspect of guest relevancy is marketing. Three years ago, the brand began airing national TV commercials to engage a whole new audience and identify Chipotle as a lifestyle brand.
“Marketing needs to accomplish three things: it has to drive difference, being visible and showcasing the unique offering that is Chipotle,” he said.
Marketing must also drive transactions, either through digital channels, CRM, or menu innovations and “drive culture by being relevant.”
He shared the example of the brand’s ‘4 Real’ campaign in 2018 announcing carne asada was back.
“Here is the brilliance of these videos. The talent was our own people. The location were our restaurants and we already had the story — it was our story. We just had to spotlight it and return on investment was terrific.”
Focusing on menu innovation
At the same time Chipotle began to leverage product innovation, and any new product had to layer into the existing process. It launched super greens, queso blanco and is piloting cilantro lime cauliflower rice.
“With more complex products like lifestyle bowls, launched last year, which were offered exclusively through digital channels and made in our digital kitchen. All of this brings us to our next and most powerful aspect of the relevancy equation — the experience,” he said.
As the brand’s messaging channels was resonating with customers, driving more traffic than ever before, the goal was to make the guest experience with the food as good as the value message that brought in the customers.
It all started with a hard look at what Chipotle calls ‘through put and its digital kitchen strategy.’
The brand defined a process to deliver great throughput at every location and monitors effectiveness closely through visual checks. It also uses a score card to track results and tie-in incentives to improve performance.
Chipotle was placing a bet on the world making a shift and guests of tomorrow and how they’ll access the brand — in a digital format.
“We went big on digital and it’s really paid off,” he said.
The digital initiative took years to complete but by the end of 2019, Chipotle had digital kitchens in over 95% of its restaurants. In Q2 2020 the brand saw a 216% growth in digital sales year-over-year.
“It’s a big bet that has worked to our advantage and we were fortunate to have a product that stayed relevant throughout the digital experience,” said Boatwright.
Stay the course
Toward the end of his keynote Boatwright offered advice for restaurants to increase their brand’s relevancy.
“When we learned to listen and realize that we didn’t know it all, we started to see how people wanted increased access and on-demand ordering,” he said. “For us paying attention to the resistance gave us the opportunity to course correct in real time.”
“Today we’re in season where resistance is really unprecedented and we don’t have control over the forces of this catastrophic and devastating pandemic, but we do have a choice in our response,” he said.
“We become more resilient and less vulnerable. We become smarter and more committed to values that not only resonate with our guests but make the world better.”
About Networld Media Group
Founded in 2000, Networld Media Group is a leading business-to-business (B2B) media communications company specializing in digital media, associations and events in the tech, banking, retail and food service industries. Online properties include ATMmarketplace.com, DigitalSignageToday.com, FastCasual.com, KioskMarketplace.com, MobilePaymentsToday.com, FoodTruckOperator.com, QSRweb.com, PizzaMarketplace.com, RetailCustomerExperience.com, VendingTimes.com and BiblicalLeadership.com. Annual events include the Fast Casual Executive Summit, the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit, the Bank Customer Experience Summit (BCX), and the Interactive Customer Experience Summit (ICX).