As the company struggles to overcome lax sales in the wake of major E. Coli and norovirus outbreaks in late 2015, Chipotle Mexican Grill has turned to a seemingly unlikely savior for the company: burgers.
Tasty Made, Chipotle’s new burger concept, opened in Lancaster, Ohio, on Thursday, October 27.
With the new concept, Chipotle seems to have taken a page from “better burger” chains like In-N-Out and Shake Shack, but leans more fast food than fast casual. It’s burger, fries, shakes, and sodas till the cows come home, but not much else.
About 30 people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, including Lancaster city officials and residents, out-of-town visitors, and friends and family of the store. Tasty Made director Dave Chrisman said Thursday he was excited for the opening, adding that there are already plans for the brand to open a new store in Pickerington, Ohio, by January.
Chrisman said in an interview that Tasty Made is Chipotle’s first true answer to the fast-food segment, but that the company is doing it in a very “Chipotle” way: A simple, customizable menu with fresh ingredients.
“We’ve tried to have that approach: to change the world from a [quick-service] kind of standpoint,” Chrisman said of Chipotle and Tasty Made. “This is the first time we’re going up head-to-head against traditional fast food with the traditional, classic American meal, so [Tasty Made] really positions us to [innovate].”
Chrisman touted Tasty Made’s use of “better-quality ingredients,” but highlighted the fact that they’re being served at a fast-food price point and with speed and convenience on par with those stores. The fresh-made, grilled-to-order burgers are not frozen, and, like Chipotle’s meats, do not have added hormones or antibiotics.
Tasty Made also boasts an innovative queuing system that helps food get out fast; this reporter got his order within four minutes of ordering.
“We bring Chipotle’s commitment to better-quality ingredients, a focused menu, fast service, and customized orders to Tasty Made,” said Steve Ells, founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Chipotle in a news release. “Each order is sent to an advanced queuing system that uses heads-up visual cues so that the team can cook and serve the food very quickly. This is in stark contrast to typical fast-food burger chains, where frozen burger patties are usually cooked ahead of time and held until later.”
But the fledgling Tasty Made brand is not without its own controversy. East Coast–based burger restaurant Tasty Burger filed a notice of opposition to all “Tasty Made” trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office Thursday. Tasty Burger has voiced issues with the similarity between the two concepts since Tasty Made was first announced, even sending a cease and desist letter in August this year.
“Frankly, as a $12 billion Goliath, Chipotle knows full well an independent business like Tasty Burger only has two choices: stand the ground and weather the storm both financially and legally, or let them steamroll over us,” Tasty Burger CEO David DuBois said in a statement.
While it might be a Goliath, Chipotle is facing an uphill battle in its comeback from the food-safety nightmare. Ells said in a conference call earlier this week that the company is emerging from “the most difficult year in its history.” Chipotle’s same-store sales fell nearly 22 percent in this year’s third quarter. Chipotle will also cease expansion on its 15-unit Southeast Asian concept ShopHouse, instead focusing on Tasty Made and the pizza fast-casual concept, Pizzeria Locale. Ells said those two concepts have more broad customer appeal.
At the restaurant Thursday, I ordered The Tasty Made—a single cheeseburger featuring Tasty Made’s Tasty Bacon Sauce—as well as some fries and a Buckeye Shake (a peanut butter and chocolate shout-out to the “Buckeye State”). The burger was cooked well, the lettuce and tomato were fresh, and the bun was great. The sauce was a little funky—think a smoky version of “secret sauces” you see at other burger restaurants—but still enjoyable.
Two Zanesville, Ohio, residents made the hour drive to attend the opening of Tasty Made on Thursday. Andy Wills and Dan Woodward praised Tasty Made’s concept, with special praise for the buns and the Buckeye Shakes.
“It’s bringing back the old American burger stand, but doing it with better ingredients,” Woodward said.
While a small town in the Midwest may seem a strange place for Chipotle to make its comeback with Tasty Made, it’s important to note that Chrisman is from Carroll, Ohio (just down the road from Lancaster), and Ells has his own Ohio roots. Chrisman said one of the main factors that decided the location was “the people” in Lancaster, from local residents to the business-friendly city administration.
Something Chrisman didn’t mention: There’s not that much competition in the better burger market in Ohio at Tasty Made’s price points. To date, there are no Shake Shacks or In-N-Outs in the Buckeye State.