- Chipotle was voted America's favorite fast-casual Mexican restaurant for the third year in a row, receiving 61% of the votes, according to Market Force Information. The poll surveyed 7,600 American adults.
- Close contenders included Moe's Southwest Grill (60%), El Pollo Loco (59%) and Del Taco (48%).
- Del Taco topped the list ranking value, while Chipotle ranked first in food quality, overall cleanliness and healthy options. Although it ranked third overall last year, Qdoba did not receive enough votes to make the list this year.
Chipotle seems to be overcoming its storied past as a QSR fraught with food safety issues. The chain has struggled to move past a number of foodborne illness outbreaks that began in 2015 when an E. coli outbreak caused 60 cases of illness across the country. The rash of outbreaks was financially devastating for Chipotle, as consumers lost trust in the brand.
Since then, the brand has made a number of food-safety focused changes including retraining employees and hiring a new CEO. The company turned to technology to improve traceability through digital supply chain tracking tools. Its head of food safety also said he would step down. The aggressive measures were warranted considering that diners are becoming more willing to spend a few minutes reporting a food-related illness on restaurant review services like Google or Yelp, affecting scores and leaving bad reviews for future diners to see.
In more recent months, the company has engaged in marketing strategies and initiatives to rebuild its customer base, such as launching a loyalty program that led to nearly five times the number of downloads for its mobile app. It marked Pride month by donating proceeds from product sales on Instagram to LGBTQ+ charities and participated in Scripps National Spelling Bee to advertise its commitment to sourcing real, unprocessed ingredients.
To appeal to consumers' growing affinity for convenience-first, it launched a recent pilot of 'Chipotlane' drive-thrus for digital orders that allows users to order ahead and to pick up their order without leaving the driver's seat. Its new Lifestyle Bowls for online and mobile orders cater to diners with dietary preferences, allowing them to place an order without having to seem picky.
Things seem to be paying off for the brand, with digital sales doubling in the first quarter of 2019.
Mexican QSRs have also adapted their menus to be more vegetarian-friendly. Qdoba recently added Impossible's plant-based protein alternative to its menus while Taco Bell snubbed the product, but said it plans to launch a vegetarian menu this fall. Chipotle, which offers tofu on its menu, has said that it has no plans to add plant-based meats to its menus on the basis that they are too processed.
Chipotle's initiatives have helped brighten its brand halo, according to Market Force's poll and its sale performance, but it will need to stay on its toes to keep its lead. Del Taco has been making aggressive moves amid declining traffic and sales slumps, launching a mobile app at the end of 2018 and partnering with Grubhub, Postmates and DoorDash for delivery services, while making some changes to its menu to target different demographics like late night diners and thrifty spenders.