Tabassum Zalotrawala surveyed the growth opportunity at Chipotle and saw plenty of headroom. But this wasn’t just a numbers game. As CEO Brian Niccol said in February, the brand’s new chief development officer was being handed unparalleled flexibility, by Chipotle’s standards, to think through access points. Among the many changes during Chipotle’s ongoing resurgence, this is where the biggest chance for further progress lies.
Chipotle is still in the early days of becoming a brand that delivers on convenience. Reducing friction across multiple channels has been one of Niccol’s top targets from the day he arrived and declared Chipotle “invisible” in the marketplace. Part of that was marketing and a need to lead culture, not react to it. It was also a reflection of where Chipotle fell behind counter-service competitors. Delivery. Loyalty. Online ordering. Drive thrus. These were all points of purchase glossed over during the fast casual’s up-and-down lifecycle.
Zalotrawala joined Chipotle in December. Along with chief legal officer Roger Theodoredis, the move completed Chipotle’s revamped leadership under Niccol, the former Taco Bell head. She last worked as CDO and VP design, construction, facilities, and strategic sourcing at Panda Restaurant Group, and also previously clocked time at Arby’s Restaurant Group, first as a franchisee and later focusing on store development and franchisee support.
Zalotrawala says she was drawn to the job first by Chipotle’s reputation and what the brand stood for—authenticity, transparency, and a commitment to ingredients unrivaled in its sector. But she wasn’t walking in selling food, which is why the fresh vibe and runway of Chipotle’s growing footprint was so alluring. Despite its history and size, the 2,500-unit chain, these days, has a very start-up feel to its structure. Beyond the new energy of the executive suite, the brand is doing things pundits probably thought it never would. And Zalotrawala’s role is front and center in changing that physical landscape.
“We have so much room to grow with innovation,” she says. “With the work that we’re going to do around the restaurant experience, this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Chipotle laid the framework last year for a company-shaking 2019. Already, the results are paying off. On April 1, the brand hit a 52-week high on the stock market of $715.62—133 percent above its 52-week low. While Wall Street is a fickle mistress that doesn’t always mirror reality, the number tells a compelling story. That rise represented Chipotle’s highest mark since 2015, when a 14-state E. coli outbreak slashed more than half of its market cap. If you look back to November 2017, a PR hit from “Supergirl” actor Jeremy Jordan, who posted a picture on Instagram blaming Chipotle for an illness, sent the brand’s stock tumbling as much as 5.9 percent to $263, the lowest figure in almost five years.
The narrative has completely changed. Chipotle turned in same-store sales growth of 6.1 percent in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2018—its highest in six periods. It crushed analyst estimates of 4.49 percent. So did revenue of $1.23 billion, which sailed $1.194 billion. In response, the brand’s stock took a double-digit jump in after-hours trading that afternoon.