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Finding Opportunity in Adversity – A Timely Message

Delivered by Tabassum Zalotrawala, Chief Development Officer, Chipotle

Finding Opportunity in Adversity

Growing up in Muscat, Oman, my brother and I were always enthralled by my father’s stories of his journey from Mumbai to Oman.

Imagine how he felt at age 20, stepping onto a boat to make the arduous seven-day voyage to Oman. He arrived in a country that had no real roads or electricity and began the adventure of creating a new life.

He didn’t speak Arabic, spoke very little English, and this was his first time outside of India.

For years, no matter how difficult the struggle, my father persevered and taught himself English, Arabic, and accounting. His hard work paid off, and he enjoyed a successful, 40-year corporate career.

Based on these stories, my brother and I grew up knowing that whatever the future held for us, we could and would survive.

 Just as in all difficult times, we each have our own stories. Thank you for the opportunity to tell mine.

On March 15, 2020, I was buckled into seat 5B on the last flight back from Vancouver, BC, to Los Angeles.

Imagine my surprise to see sitting next to me a masked stranger. He never removed his mask and did not even say, “Hello.”

Stepping off the plane I turned on my cell phone and found it full of missed calls all marked “Urgent.” As I listened to each message, what became abundantly clear was that nobody realized how dramatic the immediate situation was, how long it would last, or what restrictions we would have to cope with.

What we did know was that as an organization the only way forward was to be grounded in our purpose of cultivating a better world, focused on keeping our main priorities the main priorities, and taking care of our people.

That was the time to communicate transparently with our teams and our guests. That was the moment I knew with certainty that my job had changed and what my real job as a leader was!

Four months after I unbuckled from the Vancouver flight, I found myself in seat 6C traveling to visit Nico, one of our GMs in Denver, Colorado.

Nico was not just keeping his restaurant functioning with a minimum crew. Their business was thriving. I wanted to see for myself exactly how he had managed to serve our guests and keep his team’s morale up when local restrictions kept our dining rooms closed down.

At this point, of course, his guests were 100% digital, and they ordered ahead for take-out. I wish you could have been there as I marveled at the operation in his restaurant.

I asked Nico, “How are you managing to run your restaurant so efficiently and continuing to grow sales in spite of the challenges?”

His answer warmed my heart. He told me, “Tabassum, from the first week that this disaster began to unfold, I knew I was not alone. In that first ‘Chip Chat’ I had with the CEO and the executive leadership team, it became clear to me that you were 100% behind me and my decisions.

I knew that my supervisor’s number one priority was that my family and I were okay.”

In the restaurant business, our frontline workers are our crew members and general managers in the restaurants. They are our everyday heroes that make our business thrive.

In every industry, we were forced overnight to develop a new way of doing business.

When you are in a situation where nobody can go to their office or travel to get their work done, we all had to prioritize how to make available the tools and resources our teams needed while continuing to stress the importance of keeping themselves and their families safe and healthy.

This was not only thinking outside the box; this was thinking outside the building the box was in!

In the future, when we reflect back to this time in our lives, we will realize we have learned a magnificent lesson. There have been opportunities particularly for those who have been open to change.

Most of Chipotle’s innovations have been well documented in the industry press. I know, however, that you’re probably not as focused on them as much as on keeping your business humming and your company afloat.

At Chipotle, there are many stories of finding opportunity during times of adversity all around our organization, whether about making Chipotle more accessible to people while they were home, new menu innovations, or restaurant design innovation.

In late 2019, Brandon Blosser, Senior Manager of Digital Integration, was on a mission to simplify the prep labeling process in our restaurants.

Historically, crew members were required to write out ingredients’ shelf-life labels by hand, resulting in over 48,000 handwritten labels per restaurant each year.

Leveraging technology, Brandon partnered with Zenput to digitize and automate the labeling process which not only simplified back-of-house operations but also netted significant labor savings.

Handwritten labels averaged 20 seconds per label. Using the new platform, he was able to produce 10 labels in 6 seconds, resulting in an annual labor savings of $6 million.

I asked Brandon, “How did you manage to get your work done so quickly? How did you lead to gain these great results?”

Brandon’s response still makes me smile. He said, “Tabassum, I initially presented the concept to cross-functional leaders. They told me stories of how this had been attempted many times in the past and had failed. Nothing they said could stop me from driving the program forward. Our innovation simplified the complexity.

“What kept me going was the flexibility my supervisor provided to experiment, fail, and try different ideas with a stage-gate approach.”

Within three months, Brandon successfully developed, tested, and implemented the program in over 2800 restaurants. His innovation not only resulted in a great ROI, but they also received a fantastic return on the mission during this challenging time to cultivate a better world for our crew members.

Our operators were quick to adopt the change. They were grateful for the high-caliber operation partners within the support center who are driving programs aimed at reducing back-of-house complexity in our restaurants.

As you know, innovation comes from the top down and also from the bottom up. Because Nico and Brandon felt they weren’t in it alone, they knew their leadership was with them and cared about their wellbeing.

These everyday heroes were empowered to make decisions and find opportunities for improvement.

Innovation can thrive in adversity when you empower and encourage people on the front line in a safe environment.

Many of my colleagues here appreciate that it is not an easy task to change plans, construction drawings, and even real estate on a dime when you are part of a company that opens in excess of 100 new restaurants each year.

However, that is exactly what we needed to do to incorporate Chipotlane in a majority of our restaurants. Our biggest problem was that our restaurants were not designed to accommodate this extra digital channel.

We found opportunity in adversity, and change we did.

Yes, it was a difficult environment. We couldn’t get together in person.

Zoom and WebEx became the norm. Due to travel restrictions, none of the real estate, design, or construction teams could travel to the job sites.

The team evolved the current restaurant design, both back-of-house and front-of-house, and made it digital-ready.

They were able to introduce and roll out a brand-new restaurant design, while building a pipeline of alternate, digital-forward restaurant formats.

These include our Digital Kitchen, Chipotlane – the only digital kitchen and seam locations designed specifically to seam high volume locations in our most established markets.

Picture this: The design team began working on the new restaurant design in late 2019, and by the end of 2020, a period of 14 months, we had it in over 150 restaurants.

I asked our Director of Design, “Rich, how were we able to move so swiftly?”

I wish you could meet him. Rich is a never-say-never kind of guy.

He’s always upbeat and proactive, so I wasn’t surprised by his answer.

I will admit I expected a laundry list of processes that he and the team had to put in place on how they pivoted on the design.

Instead, his answer was, “Tabassum, we stayed focused and kept our main priority the main priority. For us as a development team, it was to increase access and convenience, so nothing else mattered.

We stayed on the task of equipping our restaurants with all the elements that drove access and convenience, and we over-communicated clearly.”

Even through the phone, I felt his excitement and pride as he talked about the rapport and camaraderie his team had with other cross-functional teams in operations, technology, and marketing.

He said, “Tabassum, I admit it was hard not to be able to sit around a table in the same room. Yet the high degree of trust between us and the fact that we over-communicated ensured all of us could stay focused on our priorities.”

So, how do we become more innovative and find opportunities in times of adversity?

Well, from my own personal experience at Chipotle, it has been the following three principles:

  • Keep your purpose as the North Star while making all decisions, and focus on your main priorities while being flexible to change.
  • Keep caring for your people, empower them to find solutions their way, and they will take care of your business.
  • Keep your communication frequent and transparent with your stakeholders, guests, and team members.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to share my experience and our Chipotle story.

As you can imagine, I was very excited to speak with you. I asked my dad what he would want to tell you. He said, “Remember to tell them the greatest success comes from times of adversity. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how hard the times are you are going through. Always keep investing in yourself. Always work to become a better leader, to become a better version of yourself.”

I challenge you to find your everyday heroes like Nico, Brandon, and Rich. When we develop our people, we expand our business.

Then the future will be bright.

Recorded at RestaurantSpaces (October 20, 2021) in Palm Springs, CA

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