Move over, Queso. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) is about to get the Cheesy Gordita treatment, and Wall Street couldn't be more pumped.
Chipotle shares were up more than 15% at market's close on Wednesday, Feb. 14, trading at $289.91, following Tuesday's announcement that the fast-casual chain has tapped Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol to be its new chief executive.
Niccol will assume the role on March 5, when current CEO and founder Steve Ells steps down and becomes the executive chairman.
Known for his marketing skills, Niccol transformed the once-struggling Taco Bell into a fast food powerhouse with menu innovation and savvy social media marketing. Now, analysts are hoping that he will apply the same branding finesse to the ailing Chipotle, in spite of the fact that the two restaurants are nothing alike outside of their Mexican cuisine-inspired menu.
"Chipotle has fallen behind in terms of menu innovation, technology and marketing branding," said Canaccord Genuity analyst Lynne Collier. "That's why [Niccol] is such a good fit."
Even though the two restaurant chains represent culturally distinct concepts, their differences can be reconciled, she said, given that both cater to millennial customers. Niccol was responsible for Taco Bell's emphasis on breakfast and its value menu as well as its reputation as one of the first eatery brands to court digital-savvy customers through social media.
Yum! Brands Inc. (YUM) , which owns Taco Bell, first hired Niccol in 2011 as the chief marketing and innovation officer for Taco Bell. Under Niccol's leadership, the chain introduced an upscale healthy menu option called Cantina Bell and the wildly popular Doritos Locos Taco. Within only one year, Taco Bell store sales went from negative 2% in 2011 to positive 8% in 2012, as Cowen analyst Andrew Charles noted in a Tuesday report.
"He's going to bring a lot of youth and vision to the brand," said Howard Penney, managing director and consumer expert at Hedgeye Risk Management. "This is a great thing."
Niccol, nonetheless, has his work cut out for him. Once a forerunner in the fast casual space, Chipotle has suffered slow sales in recent years after several food poisoning outbreaks and a data breach in 2016. In the past two years, its same-store sales have fallen 14%. Since its all-time high in August 2015 of $749.12, Chipotle shares have dropped more than 60%.
So how could Niccol breathe life into the Denver-based chain? He will probably start by freshening up the C-suite, according to Penney. "You can count on a new CMO on the near future," he told TheStreet. "He'll have 10 or 15 new senior execs — people to reinforce his youthfulness and vision."
As TheStreet's Brian Sozzi pointed out in a column Wednesday, Niccol should immediately fire Chipotle's marketing executive, Mark Crumpacker, who failed at reviving the brand after the restaurant's initial E. Coli outbreak.
Next, Niccol should gun for new menu items, analysts said, and this includes improving food quality. Chipotle's latest menu additions, chorizo and queso, were unsuccessful, Charles observed.
Even when change did roll around under Ells, it was met with reluctance. "Ells fought innovation, because his original strategy had worked so well for so long," Collier said. "But it's finally going to come with Niccol."
Still, some are skeptical.
"This is kind of a head-scratcher," said Wedbush Securities analyst Nick Setyan. "Taco Bell is a value player. How does that peg fit into the Chipotle mold?" That's not to mention, he added, Taco Bell runs on a franchisee system in which individual operators take on the marketing costs. "What Chipotle needs is focus on operations. It's the surest way to get customer returns."
That's not to say Niccol can't handle some unit economics. Taco Bell features one of the best five-year track records for both same-store sales and restaurant growth within the quick-service industry, Charles wrote. "Mr. Niccol checks all boxes for the desirable skill set CMG needs, including restaurant experience, turnaround experience, brand management experience and credibility with investors."