Death, taxes, and a bare-bones Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG 2.45%) menu used to be the only three certainties in life -- until the burrito roller brought in a Taco Bell executive to be its new CEO. Brian Niccol hasn't been afraid to mix things up at the helm.
Between its test kitchen in New York City and regional trials of potential menu additions, Chipotle is no longer married to its simple menu. Niccol arrived in early 2018, months after Chipotle introduced its original queso that received largely negative reviews. Niccol helped upgrade the premium add-on as a queso blanco, improving on the original version by losing the chalky texture and pungent aftertaste. He has also given salad lovers a supergreens mix option and turned carne asada into a seasonal protein.
Chipotle is rolling these days. The stock is closing in on the all-time highs it hit in September. Strong digital sales have helped comps turn positive in its latest quarter. Niccol isn't afraid to take chances, and with momentum as a tailwind he can keep making fresh moves without worrying about the inevitable flops along the way. Let's go over three items that Chipotle is currently testing that have a shot at going national in 2021.
1. Smoked brisket
Chipotle is offering smoked brisket at 64 locations in Cincinnati and Sacramento. The smoked beef brisket is seasoned and seared, finished off with a Mexican pepper sauce.
It would be a shock if Chipotle doesn't go national with this one. Chipotle put out a press release detailing the test on Monday, complete with promotional graphics. If you want to score a free burrito, make a bet with your friend that brisket will take over the protein tray early next year after carne asada ends its seasonal run. It's hard to see this playing out any other way if the test run fares well.
2. Cilantro-lime cauliflower rice
One of Chipotle's signature items is its cilantro rice, but sometimes customers are looking to cut the carbs without necessarily having to go the lettuce or supergreens route. Chipotle may have a solution with the riced cauliflower it began testing in its home turf of Denver as well as throughout Wisconsin.
Cauliflower rice is trendy these days. It's high in antioxidants and low in calories, and if it can mask the veggie taste with its cilantro-lime flavor it could have a healthier proxy for its flagship cilantro rice. There's a good chance that this goes national next year, too.
3. Better quesadillas
Chipotle has been making quesadillas for years as an off-menu item. The assembly line worker will just use a burrito tortilla, sprinkle in cheese and your protein of choice, and fold it in half before putting it in the tortilla warmer. It's still not on the digital menu, even though the kid meal version using the smaller soft taco tortilla can be ordered from the app. Now Chipotle is offering the full-sized quesadilla as a digital-only offering in Cleveland and Indianapolis.
The real game changer here is if Chipotle carries through with the new ovens it was considering rolling out last year. A quick-baked quesadilla would be a new flavor profile for Chipotle. The high-tech oven could also make some of the items that have been served at the Chipotle Next Kitchen -- nachos and avocado tostadas -- tastier and more nationally viable.
The new ovens could also open up the potential for the long overdue dessert options that Chipotle has been discussing over the years. The test for bunuelos flopped three years ago. The Mexican chocolate shake has been a hit at its test kitchen, but that requires an ambitious hardware rollout. Ovens could make desserts and savory entrees more feasible, and that includes a better quesadilla that Chipotle wouldn't mind promoting on its app for a change.
Chipotle didn't become a leader among consumer discretionary stocks by not listening to what its customers were craving. With a CEO who isn't afraid to take chances with the menu it wouldn't be a surprise if we see one, two, or all three of these items at a Chipotle near you in 2021.