Chipotle Going Asian: Smart Spinoff or Bad Business Move?

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

New details have emerged about Chipotle’s venture into the exotic world of Asian cuisine. Is this a genius move, or will it be the culinary equivalent of Michael Jordan playing professional baseball?

Chipotle, arguably the best (or only) Mexican joint you can find on the average suburban street corner, plans to use its service-line model for the new Asian chain. The joint will be called ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, and the first location will open in Washington, D.C., sometime this summer. Founder and co-CEO Steve Ells is trying a broad brand of Asian persuasion: Rather than confine the cuisine to Chinese or Japanese, “Southeast Asian” opens up the options to Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese eats. This inclusive design means there’s less “veto vote for consumers,” according to a food strategy expert interviewed by Restaurant News.

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ShopHouse will emphasize the (relative) healthiness and honorableness of its ingredients, just like its Mexican sire. (Chipotle ad campaigns have included slogans like “Food With Integrity.”) In a press release, the company had this to say about the menu:

The ShopHouse menu will pair the bold and complex flavors of southeast Asia with fresh, sustainably raised ingredients; grilled and braised meats, a variety of fresh vegetables, aromatic herbs, spicy sauces, and an array of garnishes.

Ells also expressed confidence about applying their signature fast-casual style to other types of food. “I have always believed that the Chipotle model would work well with a variety of different cuisines,” he said. “Chipotle’s success is not necessarily about burritos and tacos.”

There one might politely raise a finger and take issue with Ells, if only to play devil’s advocate, pointing out that Chipotle’s success is precisely about burritos and tacos — and that attempts to veer from what made you famous can end in tears.

WalletPop has a roundup of the 25 biggest product flops of all time, and many of them come from great companies who stepped away from the product that made them great. There’s Cosmopolitan magazine’s attempt to make yogurt, Life Savers bid to turn their sweets into sodas, and Coors’ shot at getting the beer-guzzling public to follow up the next day with Rocky Mountain Spring Water. There was the McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, a misguided attempt to reach out to those with sophisticated palates. And there’s the famously floppy Ford Edsel, a big ole car from the 1950s with a rather unfortunate-looking grill.

That said, NewsFeed has every bit of faith in Chipotle’s attempt. And the menu sounds delicious — certainly much more delicious than magazine-flavored yogurt.

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