Chipotle’s CEO on his go-to order and the biggest challenge he had while working the counter

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If you’re stumped looking up at the menu of a Chipotle, you can take inspiration from CEO Brian Niccol’s go-to order: a chicken burrito bowl with white rice, fajita veggies, pico de gallo, and “a little” cheese. That’s in addition to an accompanying barbacoa quesadilla and, of course, chips and guac.

“It’s probably a little too much food for my age,” Niccol told Fortune. “But, you know, it’s hard to resist.”

Though he never worked behind the counter at Chipotle, Niccol has experienced firsthand what it takes to assemble his meal, among many others. After taking over as CEO of the fast-casual chain in 2018, part of Niccol’s initiation was training at a location in Denver, Colorado, where he learned how to prepare the chain’s vegetables and toppings, manage the restaurant’s peak lunch hours, and learn the skill that is perhaps most lauded among fast-food workers: bundling a burrito’s ingredients into a tightly wrapped tortilla.    

“Wrapping a burrito is an art,” Niccol said.

Self-admittedly slow to learn burrito wrapping and in need of repetition to become proficient on the line, Niccol admitted he “ripped a few too many” tortillas during his training process. But the behind-the-counter experience gave him a deeper appreciation for the workers who prepare and serve Chipotle’s meals, which helped generate $2.7 billion in first–quarter revenue for the company, and grew the company to over 3,300 locations in 48 states.

“A lot of people don’t realize there’s a lot of precision that goes into the way our teams make the rice, cook the chicken, cook the steak,” Niccol said. “It really matters the way we cut, the way we prep everything. That was pretty eye opening to see, especially at the scale at which we have to do it.”

Heaping on success

But if learning the art of burrito-wrapping was a steep learning curve for Niccol, reviving the company from a soured reputation must have been its own stomach ache for the new CEO.

When Niccol became the company’s leader in 2018, Chipotle was still reeling from the impact of its 2016 E. coli outbreaks that sickened over a thousand customers, forcing the company to temporarily shut down over 40 locations. Chipotle’s comparable sales fell 20% year-over-year following the outbreak, and the company coughed up $25 million in 2020, the largest-ever fine in a federal food safety case.

Chipotle recovered under Niccol’s guidance thanks to a few key changes: It moved from Denver to Newport Beach to be closer to Irvine, where Niccols was wrapping up his tenure as CEO of Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands and home to a talent pool of fast-food workers. He grew Chipotle’s loyalty program and app, which helped the company keep customers coming back to its locations through the pandemic. Chipotle put increased emphasis on touting fresh ingredients and leaned into the open-kitchen layout of its restaurants, asking employees to think more like chefs and providing more information on each ingredient. Niccol said this attitude shift elevated a fast-food concept into more of a sit-down restaurant feel.

“There is something to the sights and sounds of Chipotle, hearing the grill and seeing guys chopping chicken and seeing people banging pans,” Niccol told Fortune in 2023. “You want those sounds, and you want those smells.

Today the company is grappling with decisions to raise prices to offset increases in wages, as well as consumer backlash over the ability to only order some menu items online—including Niccol’s favorite barbacoa quesadilla—and portion sizes, which some say have dwindled. The accusations over skimpy burrito bowls have even led some customers to film employees preparing their meals, claiming workers heap on proteins and toppings in front of a phone camera. Niccol insists Chipotle’s portions are just as generous as they’ve always been.

“We always want to give people big portions that get them excited about the food,” he said. “If you want to double the amount of meat, you gotta pay for it, but our goal is to get people really excited about what I believe is really delicious food.”

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