Will Chipotle's Asian Menu Ever Go National?

August 6, 2012 3:25 PM EDT | By Anthony Smith
Chipotle (Photo: Creative Commons)

Ah, Chipotle. You've moved from being a financial analyst's darling to a case study in a company fueled by expectations and expectations only; proof that skittishness fuels the stock market as much as, if not more than, anything else.

Now, if only you could get over your recent bout of bad P.R. since your stocks took a plummet and everyone, in speculating as to why such a huge dip could have occurred, started to talk about literally every single thing that your company could be doing better. That's never a good look. I'm reminded of the high school hazing routine of taking a black marker and making a person wear all of hir physical flaws. It's a little cruel, and it does some awful wonders for the self-esteem.

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But amidst all the negative criticism, one point rang true: one of Chipotle's problems could be that it's limited by its inability to diversify. In short, it consistently does very well with the Mexican foods with which American taste-buds are familiar, but can it go beyond that?

It did, once, and the results were borderline catastrophic. Last year, Chipotle opened ShopHouse in the D.C. area in an effort to see if they could take what worked for them in the Mexican food market and apply it to Asian cuisine? To call the result catastrophic may be stretching it, but it's hard to think of another word for the pile of mush you get there.

Whereas each of the ingredients in Chipotle's burrito sings-- an admirable accomplishment, to be sure-- ShopHouse drowns out winning notes of flavor (chicken satay flavored with lemongrass, for example) in a torrent of curry sauce. Considering Chipotle's market, it needn't be fast food poetry; but that being said, it needn't be this objectionably ham-fisted either.

But why's a lack of subtlety a real problem here? Because it feels, well, unintelligent and unhealthy. There's something pathologically rewarding about eating at Chipotle that goes beyond its mission to serve local. It's food that tastes healthy and is healthy. And while the same can be said about the brown rice and white meat chicken that ShopHouse encourages you to eat, the execution makes the whole thing seem like pan-Asian take-out. And when you're thinking of healthy, you don't think take-out.

What's the formula to success here? Reformulate. Ditch the sauce. Focus on creating a more full-bodied flavor for the meets. Maybe put the curry stuff on the side for dipping. That's the way to go, here.

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