Fixing the Quick-service Customer Experience: The Case of Chipotle

Hemant Agrawal, Hinda Hassan, Omid Sadeghi, Sri Kiran Ravi Shankar and Shilpa Swamy
MBA Perspectives
Current average rating    
Key Takeaways

​What? Faced with changing consumer expectations, fast food restaurants must reinvent the customer experience to stay relevant.

So what? Fast food restaurants need to create an experience that reconciles the dichotomy between fresh, local food and systematized, global processes that make fast food scalable.

Now what? While transforming menu offerings to include healthier, fresh options is a step in the right direction, fast food restaurants must design and deliver a multi-dimensional customer experience to engage consumers.

MBA Perspectives is an exclusive AMA series examining customer experience design.

By dining out, millennials and foodies are exposed to a variety of different cuisines and gastronomic experiences. These individuals expect a personal and intimate dining experience and, as such, are changing the dining culture.

Not all restaurants, however, are quick to cater to the young and health-conscious. Presently, quick-service restaurants are tweaking their menus by offering healthier food choices with lower trans fats and sodium. Other changes include replacing margarine with butter and adding soups and salads to their offerings. However, one could argue that new menus are only a compromise to create the perception of healthier choices and require little to no innovation.

Quick-service restaurants need to adapt to keep up with the plethora of changes in food preferences, safety concerns and nutrition trends. The challenge remains for quick-service restaurants to deliver meals made with fresh and healthy ingredients while staying true to their promise of providing fast, affordable options.

Quick-service restaurants need to create an experience that reconciles the dichotomy between fresh, local food and systematized, global processes that make food service scalable.

The “natural” philosophy of the 1960s not only stimulated the development of organic foods but also sparked an interest in health and nutrition. It became synonymous with the social values of the youth movement and the support of local farmers and food co-ops. Many proponents of this movement participated in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, which encouraged consumers to understand their food.

Half a century later, it’s evident that the debate over global warming and ethical issues has made consumption a deeply entrenched moral decision. Marcus Giesler and Ela Veresiu argue in a 2014 article in the Journal of Consumer Research that the emergence of a “revolution of green consumption” has led to consumers who “see themselves no longer as protected citizens who have something to gain from stricter environmental laws but as environmental stewards for whom every action—from installing a green thermostat to buying energy-saving light bulbs—is an investment in their own and the planet’s future.” 

It is no longer just a question of food consumption. Consumers nowadays are tackling global issues while thinking locally about the ingredients that go into their meals. They are choosing to eat at restaurants that cater to social expectations. 

For example, Chipotle Mexican Grill, a fast-casual restaurant that is positioned between quick service and casual dining, became a consumer favorite for its use of meats from ethically raised animals, organic vegetables and locally sourced produce. Its Local Grower Support Initiative plays an important role in helping small farmers access the financial resources, personnel and technology required to implement food safety standards. Chipotle’s mantra of “food with integrity” resonates with consumers because it is simple, honest and aligns with the health concerns and social values of its customers.

Even with its limited menu options, Chipotle’s ability to customize the ingredients in each order allows customers to construct a variety of meals appealing to their taste and dietary needs. Craig J. Thompson and Gokcen Coskuner‐Balli note in their 2007 paper, “Countervailing Market Responses to Corporate Co‐optation and the Ideological Recruitment of Consumption Communities,” that food made with fresh ingredients created an experience for diners because it afforded “consumers with reaffirming experiences of emotional immediacy, confidence in outcomes, direct participatory involvement and the personal engagement that is difficult to replicate.”

Transforming the quick-service restaurant experience requires reimagining existing menus to make them healthier and more appealing to consumers and understanding what attracts them to restaurants such as Chipotle.

1. Make Consumers Feel Good About Their Consumption Choices

As technology becomes increasingly integrated into every aspect of life, millennials are using digital tools such as nutrition-tracking apps, online ordering and outsourcing dietary choices to artificial intelligence. Consumers want to know what they are eating and how it was made. They want a sense of where their food came from. They want to watch as it is prepared or choose ingredients that cater to their tastes.

This healthy lifestyle comes with a penchant for fresh, locally sourced ingredients that can be traced to what Thompson and Coskuner-Balli call the “sustainability and communal connectedness pursued by the countercultural pioneers of the organic food movement.” Additionally, brands that tackle food waste will earn favor with consumers who care about the environment and demonstrate as much with their spending choices.

2. Create a Restaurant Space That Engages Consumers

As stated by Michael Specter in The New Yorker, “For more than 50 years, eating at fast-food restaurants has been an almost clinically impersonal experience: The food is rapidly prepared, remarkably cheap, utterly uniform and served immediately.” This doesn’t paint a good picture of the quick-service experience, especially when we consider that one in four Americans, nearly 79 million people, eat at a quick-service establishment each day, according to Euromonitor International.

Restaurant spaces are essential to shaping the customer perception and experience and should not be overlooked. Functional and elemental aspects of the space such as the physical design, atmosphere, layout and fixtures must align with the message of well-being and healthy eating. Many restaurants incorporate open displays showcasing fresh ingredients. When taken together, these forces create an immersive experience for customers.

3. Design Operational Processes that Support Safer, Faster Food

Offering fresh food at scale carries inherent risks. We don’t need to look far to recall the effects that Chipotle’s norovirus and E. coli outbreaks have had on hundreds of Americans. Although the outbreaks are speculated to be caused by contaminated food, Chipotle was unable to identify which ingredients were the culprits, nor isolate it to a particular supplier. Chipotle took several measures to reassure consumers that it was serious about food safety, but many consumers were disappointed and no longer considered the brand healthy. Chipotle’s experience begs the question of whether quick-service chains can standardize an easily replicable format that can be adopted across markets while maintaining transparent, local supply chains. 

Incorporating locally sourced ingredients poses a challenge for existing global processes, an adequately managed supply chain and transparent food preparation, but it will ultimately lead consumers to trust their food. No one can deny that quick-service restaurants have a significant role to play when it comes to food safety, health and nutrition. As consumers strive to lead healthier lifestyles, quick-service restaurants must rid themselves of the one-size-fits-all strategy and instead deliver better outcomes through an enhanced customer experience.


Berfield, Susan (2015), “Inside Chipotle’s Contamination Crisis,” Bloomberg.

Euromonitor International (2015), “Future Watch: Will Fast Food Embrace Wellness Due to Consumer Pressure?”

Euromonitor International (2016), “Future Watch: Is Fast Food Slowing Down?”

Euromonitor International (2016), “New Concepts in Consumer Foodservice: Food Halls, Healthy Eating and Localisation.”

Recommended For You:
AMA PCM Digital Marketing Exam Hooters Goes Fast-Casual With New Hoots Concept Can Chipotle's E.coli Apologies Win Back Consumers?

AMA PCM Digital Marketing Exam

Hooters Goes Fast-Casual With New Hoots Concept

Can Chipotle's E.coli Apologies Win Back Consumers?


 Sign Up for Marketing News Weekly

Get the best marketing thought leadership delivered directly to your inbox!

Author Bio:

Hemant Agrawal, Hinda Hassan, Omid Sadeghi, Sri Kiran Ravi Shankar and Shilpa Swamy
The AMA is pleased to partner with Professor Markus Giesler (Big Design Lab) and his MBA students. Hemant Agrawal, Hinda Hassan, Omid Sadeghi, Sri Kiran Ravi Shankar, and Shilpa Swamy are members of the Customer Experience Design class of 2016.
Add A Comment :

Become a Member
Access our innovative members-only resources and tools to further your marketing practice.