The beleaguered CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill is stepping down. The decision comes after nearly two years spent trying—unsuccessfully—to restore the chain’s reputation after a withering 2015 food-safety crisis.
Steve Ells, founder of the company that has grown to include more than 2,300 US locations, is set to step down as soon as its board finds a replacement. He will continue as executive chairman.
The once-irreproachable brand—known for its ad campaigns that blasted factory farming—lost its footing in late 2015 after a norovirus outbreak sickened more than 300 customers across 14 states, hospitalizing 22. The event shattered consumer trust and sent the company on a long and arduous journey to regain its place in the hyper-competitive fast-casual market. Chipotle has attempted to reshape its image in many ways, including:
- Redesigning its internal food-safety system.
- Starting Chiptopia, a consumer rewards program.
- Handing out more than 6 million free burritos in a promotional pitch.
- Launching new products, such as chorizo and queso dip—the latter of which didn’t do so well.
- Releasing another signature animated video short—this one on food quality—which has since been deleted from the brand’s YouTube page.
Still, none of it was enough to save Ells, who has led Chipotle ever since he started it in 1993. The board announced today (Nov. 29) it was launching a search for a replacement.
“Simply put, we need to execute better to ensure our future success,” Ells said in a statement. “Bringing in a new CEO is the right thing to do for all our stakeholders.”
Some industry analysts, have been calling for Ells to step out of his CEO role for more than a year. In July 2017, after the company was hit with another case of norovirus, analyst Howard Penney told Quartz that if that food- safety relapse wasn’t the “death blow” for Ells, it was getting close. Four months later, he company is making that move.