In its quest to get back in to America’s good graces, Chipotle appears to be turning into Taco Bell. Today, the chain known for its burritos — and for spreading foodborne illness —revealed five new menu items: a Mexican chocolate milkshake, a quesadilla, an avocado tostada, nachos, and a green salad.
The new menu items are now available at the chain’s NYC test kitchen but, according to the New York Times, will eventually be rolled out nationwide. (Chipotle currently has 2,500 locations across the U.S.). This is the first time the company founded in 1993 has introduced so many new menu items at once; the last new menu item it released was queso, which was met with mixed reviews last year. Eventually, after a widespread backlash, the company promised that they would “fix” it.
This menu news comes nearly three years after one of the country’s most widespread foodborne illness outbreaks: Hundreds of people were sickened at Chipotle Mexican Grill between 2015 and 2017 after an E. coli outbreak that was never fully traced.
Last year, the chain also a dessert for the first time: buñuelos with chocolate sauce. After sluggish sales, the cinnamon-scented fritters came off the menu earlier this year.
Change is again afoot. Last November, Chipotle’s founder and longtime CEO Steve Ells stepped down. In his place, this past March, the company hired former Taco Bell executive Brian Niccol, who’s credited with “using social media to make the brand more youthful and culturally relevant.” Since then, Chipotle has announced that it will move its headquarters from Colorado to California, which is where Taco Bell is headquartered. The beleaguered brand also said it would be introducing drive-thrus, a classic feature of suburban Taco Bell locations.
When asked if Chipotle was taking a page from Taco Bell’s rulebook in announcing the new menu items — which sound like they were pulled right off Taco Bell’s menu — research and development chef Chad Brauze denied the connection. “No, it’s consumer requests, we know from our market research that people want quesadillas,” he said, noting that the chain had been offering quesadillas and nachos but hadn’t installed the right equipment to keep the process fast. “We have all the materials to make it, but now we have a new machine to do it right.”
Brauze also says he’s working on that queso. “You know, as a chef, it hurts me to see on Twitter remarks where people just don’t care for it... Queso is my pet project. I’m working on it constantly, and we’ll have a new version here soon.” The chef says one of the challenges is that the company is still not using artificial stabilizers or preservatives. “We’re not using weird stuff like sodium citrate, we make it hot and we serve it fresh. It doesn’t come shelf stable, it’s a real product, but consumers want it to be more like nacho cheese, so we’re still working on it.”
As the New York Times noted of the new menu items, and their rollout, “Chipotle must simply get them right.” All eyes are on the company to win its fans back, but it’s hard not to compare these new menu releases to Taco Bell’s periodic new menu launches, which unquestionably drive buzz around the brand. Taco Bell is currently America’s favorite Mexican chain.
Additional reporting provided by Helena Gonzalez.