September 29, 2017

Is Chipotle’s Queso really that bad?

Several national restaurant chains have introduced Queso in the hopes of attracting its rabid fans to their counters. The most newsworthy of the Queso upstarts is Chipotle, which finally caved to popular demand and added the cheese sauce to its menus nationwide on September 12.

Of course, the context for Chipotle’s announcement includes the Mexican chain’s continued struggles with food safety and its declining stock price. Last year, compounding Chipotle’s concerns, we showed that its deserters may never come back since many of those folks have allocated those funds for groceries instead.   

So then how is Chipotle’s Queso going over with consumers? Let’s dive into the data. One thing is very clear right off the bat: the Queso is certainly much-discussed.

Customer data for Chipotle's Queso

Note that the day Queso launched a full 40% of all buyer conversations about Chipotle for 48 hours mentioned the cheese sauce. And while that number declined a bit in the days that followed, it still hovered around 1 in 5 conversations for the rest of the month.

Of course, fast casual restaurant chain management isn’t exactly B-list celebrity PR and there is such a thing as bad press. Let’s look then at the same chart for Queso at Chipotle with SIGNUM for Restaurant’s sentiment analysis layered in.

Sentiment analysis for Chipotle's Queso

Note how the red, negative area dwarfs the green area. In fact, negative comments about Chipotle’s Queso exceed the positive by more than 344%.

So it’s clear that Chipotle buyers are talking a lot about its Queso and they’re saying that it’s bad. But maybe that just means Queso haters are a broader segment of the population than we first suspected and that Queso skews bad just like bacon skews good.

In other words let’s look at the whole Queso landscape across Chipotle's competitors.

Data for Queso at Moe's, Chipotle, Taco Bell

The spike in conversations about Queso at Chipotle has spurred a spike in conversations about Queso across the Mexican chain industry; Moe’s Southwest Grill even offered free Queso for a day on September 21.

The problem here for Chipotle is that customers like Queso at other restaurants more than they do at Chipotle. Since September 8, the net sentiment score for Queso at Moe’s is positive 44.3%. Net sentiment is determined by the number of positive comments minus the number of negative comments, divided by the total number of buyer comments about Queso. During this same period, at Taco Bell the sentiment is positive 18.2%; Del Taco’s is flat. All are well above the negative 41.9% score for Queso at Chipotle.

The data therefore shows multiple Queso problems for Chipotle. Its customers are jazzed about the idea of Queso, yet don’t like the taste. Additionally, customers across the Mexican chain space are catching Queso fever but prefer eating it at Moe’s, Del Taco, and Taco Bell. It may well be time for Chipotle to return to the drawing board.