Chipotle Founder, CEO Gone as Search Begins to Help Company Restore Brand Loyalty

Amid food safety issues that have shadowed Chipotle Mexican Grill for more than two years, Steve Ells, chairman, CEO, and company founder (1993) will become executive chairman after the completion of a search to find a new CEO.

“I am incredibly proud of Chipotle and our people–and grateful to our loyal customers–and while we are continuing to make progress, it is clear that we need to move faster to make improvements,” Ells said in a company release. “Simply put, we need to execute better to ensure our future success. The Board and I are committed to bringing in an experienced leader with a passion for driving excellence across every aspect of our business, including the customer experience, operations, marketing, technology, food safety, and training.”

Ells added: “Bringing in a new CEO is the right thing to do for all our stakeholders. It will allow me to focus on my strengths, which include bringing innovation to the way we source and prepare our food. It will ultimately improve our ability to provide our guests with delicious food that is prepared with high quality ingredients that are raised responsibly and served in a way that is accessible to everyone. I am confident that this will allow us to deliver value for our shareholders, and provide rewarding opportunities for our employees. Chipotle has vast unrealized potential. As we work hard to restore our brand, I believe we can capitalize on opportunities, including in areas such as the digital experience, menu innovation, delivery, catering, and domestic and international expansion, to deliver significant growth.”

Chipotle lead independent director Neil W. Flanzraich said: “Steve is a visionary leader and one of the most successful restaurateurs in history, having grown Chipotle from a single restaurant in Colorado to more than 2,350 restaurants today. Steve made the decision, and the Board agreed, that now is the right time to identify a new CEO who can reinvigorate the brand and help the company achieve its potential. We are committed to recruiting a world-class CEO for this incredible opportunity.”

The Board has retained the services of leading executive recruitment firm Spencer Stuart to assist in the search for a new CEO.

Two years ago, Chipotle endured an E. coli outbreak that affected almost 60 people who ate at the massively popular burrito chain. That incident was well documented and caused company officials to take strident measures to take control of food safety, experiment with a temporary loyalty program, and restore brand loyalty among its customers.

After making solid progress since then, earlier this year the company closed a restaurant in Sterling, VA, following multiple reports of customers getting sick after eating there. As a result, Chipotle’s stock sank and more than 130 people claimed they had become ill after eating at the restaurant. 

Ells addressed Chipotle’s situation in July.

“As we’ve grown, we have also encountered our share of adversity,” Ells explained in July. “Our unprecedented success leading up to 2015 has masked operational weakness in some key areas of our business. The food safety incidents of 2015 revealed that our food safety program needed to be more robust and it became clear that we were focused too much on building cultures that didn't drive the results we were expecting, and too little on the operations fundamentals required to deliver an exceptional guest experience. Upon returning to the position of sole CEO at Chipotle late last year, I committed to fulfilling the promise of dramatically improving the guest experience and making Chipotle the safest place to eat.”

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