By now, more consumers are familiar with Chipotle’s fall from grace than they are the clever animated videos. Hundreds of guests fell ill from E. coli and norovirus in a series of outbreaks that started in the fall of 2015 and occurred as late as the summer of 2017. Same-store sales plunged by more than 20 percent in 2016. The company and founder Steve Ells apologized, hired food-safety experts, shut down restaurants to retrain employees, and tweaked kitchen processes, but one thing seemed clear to the industry and consumers alike: Chipotle, a brand that regularly did double-digit quarterly comps, was at a loss for how to claw its way back to respectability.
Or, as Niccol puts it, Chipotle wasn’t being aggressive enough in changing the conversation around the brand. “I just really believe the brand had gotten into this position of being very defensive, as opposed to talking about what made the brand great,” he says. “This idea of ‘Food with Integrity,’ giving people access to a higher level of food—that just didn’t exist before Chipotle created the category of fast casual.”
As soon as Ells announced in the fall of 2017 that he would step down from the CEO position, Niccol’s was a name on many speculators’ lips as being a potential replacement. He’s seen as something of a rock-star executive; young and charismatic, the 45-year-old has a long track record of success in digital innovation and brand management, extending back to his early career when he worked at consumer-product giant Procter & Gamble.
More importantly, Niccol spent three years as the CEO at Taco Bell, the culmination of a 13-year stint at Yum! Brands that also included the CMO roles of both Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. His years at Taco Bell—2011–2018—were some of the company’s strongest, a period that included as many buzz-worthy menu innovations (such as Doritos Locos Tacos) as it did thoughtful marketing programs and experiential touchstones (like the upscale Cantina prototype).