Chef's Blog

June 30, 2018

Chipotle 2.0: What’s Next for Fast Casual Mexican?

from Chef Matthew Fuss

When the first Chipotle opened in 1993, it introduced Americans to a whole new concept in quick-service Mexican food: an approachable menu that offered complete customization, better quality ingredients, and an upgraded experience that set the stage for the fast casual revolution that followed. In fact, Chipotle became so closely associated with the booming new segment that other fast casual concepts were often described as “the Chipotle of burgers” or “the Chipotle of Asian street food.”

Now 25 years in—after a number of growing pains and a series of well-publicized food safety crises—Chipotle’s competition is heating up, with several exciting challengers looking to become the next Chipotle: similar, but more innovative. At Minor’s, we’re closely watching small regional chains and creative independents like Uberrito, Torchy’s, Muchas Gracias, and Oxido to see what they do next.

• The flavors of chiles beyond the more well-known jalapenos and chipotles (which are smoke-dried jalapenos) are exploding on menus. According to Datassential, Ancho is on 26.4% of menus (up 21% since 2007), and Poblano is on 8.9%, representing an increase of 74%

In some ways, this development was predictable. First-to-market Chipotle broke the ground and owned the space for its customizable mix-and-match menu and assembly line operational simplicity, as well as its fresh messaging and locally sourced ingredients. It was already positioned as different from the Taco Bells and McDonald’s of the world for its clean, quality food at reasonable prices.

When it comes right down to it, however, Chipotle was always pretty mainstream, with food that now seems boring, predictable and mass market, and it didn’t help much that the menu changes almost never.

All it would take to challenge Chipotle was to offer the same smart but simple operating system with a more dynamic menu and exciting flavors. And that’s exactly what this new crop of competitors has done, with more sophisticated proteins, flavorful sauces, and signature menu specialties. Whether they tap into authenticity or fusion-fueled innovation, these newer concepts are well positioned for growth.

Take Oxido, a bold new fast casual concept in New York City, which I visited on a city dine-around not long ago. The brainchild of Jesse Perez, a James Beard-nominated chef from San Antonio, Oxido touts traditional Mexican food with modern influences, with burrito/bowl/taco fillings like Grilled Garlic Steak, chile Lime Pork Carnitas, mole-like New Mexican Beef Curry, and Red Chile Mushrooms. Seasoned Basmati rice, grilled vegetables, charro beans and Sweet Corn Relish add more heft, but the real centerpiece is Oxido’s “Get Sauced!” selection. That’s seven different distinctive salsas, from Chipotle Crema and Smoked Jalapeno to Fire Roasted Tomato and Chile de Arbol that customers can savor and sample at will, plus queso blanco and guacamole for a buck or so extra, and they really put Oxido’s offerings over the top.

Sauces and toppings, as well as distinctive marinades for the proteins, also make a statement at Uberrito Fresh Mex, with six locations in Texas and Arizona. Choices include Zesty Tomatillo and Tomato Tomatillo, Serrano Ranch, Spicy Avocado and Raging Habanero. And in addition to offering Build Your Own burritos, bowls and salads, Uberrito also menus Ten Tasty Tacos, with curated creations like Texas Cheesesteak, Diablo Shrimp, and the Sloppy Cowboy, a sloppy Joe riff with shredded beef, grilled potatoes and onions on a flour tortilla with shredded cheese, smoky Chile de Arbol salsa and Serrano Ranch.

Torchy’s Tacos, a relatively big contender with 48 stores in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, sets itself apart not only with all-day breakfast tacos but also a Taco of the Month (the Vagabond comprises grilled fajita beef with bacon, grilled onions, chimichurri, feta cheese and pico de gallo). The regular menu includes such cheekily named signatures as the Crossroads (smoked beef brisket with grilled onions, jalapenos, cilantro, avocado, Jack cheese and tomatillo sauce), Mr. Orange (blacked salmon, grilled corn and black bean relish, cotija cheese, cilantro, lime and avocado sauce), Brushfire (Jamaican jerk chicken, grilled jalapenos, mango, sour cream and diablo sauce), and Mr. Pink (guajillo seared ahi tuna, cabbage fresca, cotija cheese and chipotle sauce). Can you say, “layered flavors”?

Willy’s Mexicana Grill (29 locations in Georgia) has a salsa bar. California Tortilla (55 locations on the East Coast) touts more than 75 different hot sauces and specialty fillings like Carnitas Verde, Korean BBQ, and Tikka Masala. And the street food signatures at Muchas Gracias (36 stores in Oregon and Washington) run to machaca (spiced dried pork), carnitas, chorizo, lengua (tongue) and even cabeza (meat picked from the roasted head of a cow). Not saying that this will ever go mainstream, but it certainly speaks to authenticity.

Try This: Minor’s offers Flavor Concentrates that fit right in with the upgraded Mexican fast casual trend, making bold, authentic flavors more accessible to non-ethnic kitchens. These include Ancho, Chipotle, Cilantro Lime, Fire Roasted Jalapeno, Fire Roasted Poblano, and Red Chile Adobo. Try a free sample of any Flavor Concentrate here.

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