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What the Heck is up with Chipotle Queso?

Blog by Ian Luck
February 14, 2018

Here at CustomerGauge we have an office-wide appreciation for a lunchtime Chipotle run. So we’re as sad as anyone to see that after clawing their way out of their food safety nightmare of 2015, Chipotle seems to be at it again with the customer experience blunders: this time in the form of queso. Seeing that Chipotle's main differentiator is its fresh, real (and good) ingredients, this is a blow that we never saw coming.

Food Safety Nightmare

Chipotle was founded in 1993, responding to the increasing consumer demand for fast-food that isn’t at the price of good ingredients. Their goal was to combine the best of both worlds when it came to fine-dining and quick service.

In theory, this would be a huge customer experience win. But as the chain expanded, it became harder to deliver on this promise without compromising food safety. In 2015, they suffered a food safety-related norovirus outbreak that sickened more than 300 people across 14 states, hospitalizing 22. This nationally covered scandal took a big bite out of their business. At one point, the chain’s CEO, Steve Ells, reported foot traffic had dropped by 20%.

Then in 2017, the company's shares dropped nearly 14% in only one week after news broke that there was yet another norovirus outbreak connected to one of its restaurants in Sterling, Virginia. The aftershocks of these scandals have left the chain on shaky ground with their customers, and recent customer experience blunders are only further rocking this already strained relationship.

A Big, Cheesy Mess

Chipotle is known for it’s guacamole (yes, we know the guac costs extra) and recently decided to launch what they hoped would be another favorite: queso. This was predicted to boost sales, but since it’s launch in September, it hasn’t lived up to it’s expectations. Actually, according Facebook check-in data, there have been weaker traffic trends in the latter part of September.

Why? Well, customers don’t seem too happy with the queso that they’ve been requesting for years. Twitter was set aflame with complaints, even some going as far as comparing it to dumpster juice. The texture is cited as being grainy, and in a world of divisive social media, the consensus seems relatively united on this point: the queso is bad.

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A Questionable Response to the Backlash

Everybody makes mistakes, but in customer service, it’s all about how you respond to them. Chipotle has immediately taken to the defense. Instead of admitting fault, many statements actually blame customers for their dislike of the queso. Chipotle’s Chief Marketing Officer Mark Crumpacker said,  “When you compare it to the more synthetic ones, it’s got a different texture...but it’s melted cheese, and that’s what actual cheese tastes like." The closest to an actual admission of fault was a response sent from their official Twitter that said “While our queso may be different than other artificial-ingredient-infused cheese dips, we're still tweaking things.”

“That’s what actual cheese tastes like” is kind of an insulting response to give to the customers who are not digging the queso. What they’re essentially saying is “it’s not us, it’s you”. What happened to the days of the customer is always right? The defense of citing their mission to use real ingredients isn’t acceptable, because it doesn’t matter if the ingredients are real if it doesn’t taste good. That’s the bottom line.

Hope for a Burrito-Filled Future

Chipotle did attempt to test the waters before they launched queso nation-wide: doing a soft-release in their New York City test kitchen in July, and launching it in roughly 350 restaurants in California and Colorado in August. In these test markets, according to the company, queso sales and customer reactions were positive enough that the chain felt comfortable rolling it out at all locations. But based on the reaction they’ve had from their complete roll-out, perhaps the markets they were testing were not reflective enough of the overall tastes of their customers.

But the flop in predicting the success of the queso is not where the mistakes ended: the response from the company shifted the blame and even came off as condescending. If they hope to move forward, they need to listen to their customers, make them feel heard and act on their feedback.

Chipotle is obviously still working the kinks out balancing their mission for real ingredients with the demands of being a quick-service yet high quality food establishment. Here’s to hoping they can figure out how to do so without making anyone sick or putting out gross tasting food. Chipotle, we’re rooting for you.  

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