While at Yum, Niccol also made investments in Grubhub and worked with companies such as DoorDash. These connections could be a boon for Chipotle as it seeks to compete with other fast casual restaurants and quick-service chains that are steadily rolling out delivery initiatives. Chipotle has lagged rivals such as Panera Bread in adopting new technology.
Niccol has already experienced the hiccups associated with adopting new systems, and he’s not shied away from being one of the first to make a move. At Pizza Hut, Niccol launched online ordering, realizing that it had two major benefits: accuracy and convenience. At the time, selling pizza online was only being done by a company in New Zealand, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Today, all the big pizza companies are huge in the online space,” he told the Times in 2015. “It just shows the power of technology.”
Niccol isn’t just a tech guru. When he moved to Taco Bell he changed the company’s slogan from “Think outside the bun” to “Live Mas,” the Times reported.
This rallying cry for innovation was just the beginning. Niccol would go on to reposition the fast-food Mexican chain as a lifestyle brand, launch the chain’s breakfast offerings and push for more ingenuity in the kitchen.
He was the driving force behind some of Taco Bell’s most wildly successful limited-time menu offerings, such as the Quesarito, Naked Chicken Chalupa and Nacho Fries. He’s also the reason Doritos Locos Tacos, which started as a limited-time-only offer, have graduated to a fixture on the fast food chain’s menu.
Niccol is known for encouraging employees to pitch ideas. According to The Wall Street Journal, Niccol once visited a Taco Bell and saw that employees were using tortillas to make miniature wraps. This became the inspiration for Taco Bell’s crunchwrap sliders.
“Taco Bell’s sales were up 5 percent last year, growing nearly $500 million, and Niccol’s been instrumental in looking at new avenues for growth — like breakfast — and has overseen the chain’s menu innovation activities, which have really helped drive traffic and sales growth,” David Henkes, principal at Technomic, told CNBC via email.
The hope is that Niccol can bring these innovations to Chipotle.
“Based on his track record of success in leading Taco Bell (where he has served as CEO since January 2015) and a range of other consumer-focused businesses (e.g., Pizza Hut, multiple brands at Procter & Gamble), we believe Niccol brings highly relevant skill sets in the areas of marketing and operations that can help CMG to address the primary issues that have weighed on traffic trends since the late-2015 food safety incidents,” David Tarantino, analyst at Baird, wrote in a research note Wednesday.
Customers, especially from younger generations, aren’t just looking for mobile ordering and quirky new menu items, they also want a personal connection with brands.
A person familiar with the matter told the Journal that Niccol plans to use social media to make Chipotle “more youthful and culturally relevant.”
Taco Bell has thrived on tongue-in-cheek Twitter posts, partnerships with brands such as Forever21 to deliver a limited-time clothing line, and quirky marketing, such as its trailer for “Web of Fries,” which it used to promote its new Nacho Fries menu item.
“We expect that Mr. Niccol will lean on his past success driving sales at Taco Bell with breakfast, aggressive value, limited-time-offers and compelling marketing to help improve trends at Chipotle,” Peter Saleh, analyst at BTIG, wrote in a research note.
Neil Saunders, managing partner at GlobalData, expects Niccol to bring both operational discipline and fresh thinking to Chipotle at a time when it needs it most.
“Investors will be relieved to have stability at the top and, all being well, this should usher in a less dramatic period for the company,” he said.