ChainMail | Chipotle’s ‘Cheesesteak’ Problem

How social media disrupted a fast-food assembly line

ChainMail | Chipotle’s ‘Cheesesteak’ Problem

Let’s say there’s a widget factory run according to lean manufacturing principles. To maximize efficiency, managers order the precise number of components required to produce and deliver six types of widgets on time.

Now let’s say a customer gets an idea to improve the #6 widget by adding one component from the #2 widget and another from #3. This customer orders a truckload of custom #6 widgets, then brags about the successful improvisation on social media. Suddenly the factory is overwhelmed with orders from other customers for the custom #6. Completion of these additional orders robs the popular #2 and #3 of parts, and gums up production because there’s no approved assembly method for a custom #6. Quality suffers, deliveries are delayed, customers flee.

This crisis at the widget factory approximates the challenge facing Chipotle, which essentially runs a Mexican food assembly line in each kitchen.

Recently two TikTok food reviewers got excited about a Chipotle hack — an off-menu item that tastes like a Philadelphia cheesesteak. You create it by ordering a steak quesadilla with extra cheese and added fajita veggies, plus a custom dipping sauce of sour cream and honey vinaigrette. The TikTok influencers, Alexis Frost and Keith Lee, set off an avalanche of orders at Chipotle stores, frustrating employees and slowing service. Some stores refused to make the hack, saying it violated kitchen protocols.

As food website The Takeout explained, quesadillas, which are folded and heated, are available only through the Chipotle app because they take longer to prepare. Quesadillas at Chipotle were designed to include just protein and cheese, so adding the fajita vegetables complicates the cooking process and stresses out the staff, who also need to whip up the vinaigrette. 

Overwhelmed employees just about lost their sauce. One Chipotle worker wrote on Reddit: “Overworked and underpaid employees being forced to work even more to make extra vinaigrette and cheese for the day, running back and forth to make quesadillas, dealing with customers in store arguing with you about why quesadillas are online only?? For a TikTok trend?”

Last year I wrote about Taco Bell’s misadventure using musical artist Doja Cat’s social media presence to promote Mexican Pizza. The chain underestimated the popularity of a Cat-endorsed menu item and had to suspend sales temporarily.

The power of social media to disrupt demand for fast-food menu items is a reminder to all who manage supply chains how the quick pace of technological and social change heightens customer expectations. The length of time between noticing a potential purchase, ordering it, and expecting delivery has been shaved to the bone. Go viral at your peril.

Chipotle is now racing to appease customers and train employees. The company says it will add the Fajita Quesadilla to its digital menu in the coming weeks. Widgets never tasted so good.

Read the complete Issue 29 of ChainMail here.

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