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Could Chipotle’s Future Include a Bun?

This morning, the news broke that Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. was seeking a trademark for the name “Better Burger,” and the internet reacted in the way we’ve come to expect when it comes to the beloved chain. Bloomberg broke the news, noting that that the company applied for the trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office earlier in March. Chris Arnold, a spokesman for the company, simply noted that it is a growth seed idea Chipotle is exploring.

A burger chain would certainly make sense for the company: according to the NPD group, 8.9 billion burgers were ordered at restaurants and foodservice outlets as of the year ending June 2015. By combining Chipotle’s emphasis on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and a limited-yet-customizeable menu, Better Burger could immediately make an impact on the saturated U.S. burger market. If the new concept follows the Chipotle model, I imagine it would compete at a national level against Shake Shack, Smashburger, Five Guys and the like. I’m not sure people looking for the value-focused menus of Wendy’s, Burger King and McDonald’s will immediately jump ship, but I’m sure Better Burger locations will steal a few sales.

This isn’t the first non-Mexican concept the company has explored. The company launched ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in 2011, and currently operates 10 locations. The company also explored the pizza market with Pizzeria Locale in combination with an existing local full-service restaurant in the company’s home market of Denver. Both remain small operations, and may provide a bit of insight into what Chipotle is actually planning with the burger. A national roll-out is not guaranteed.

The news also brings with it a fair share of questions. The company has been derailed in the past 12 months, with most press in a negative light: e. coli and norovirus outbreaks, CEO paycuts and lower sales could all be positioned around this news to make the company look desperate. However, the company could also leverage what it learned in the 2015 foodborne illness scares it endured to give the new concept a head-start.

It will be interesting to see how the company utilizes the new concept, and how far they wish to expand the brand. Will the concept be restricted to the Denver area, as their other brands currently are? Will the company expect to push this brand nationally? In the case of a national rollout, will the chain cannabalize sales from value-conscious consumers who will need to make the choice between Chipotle and Better Burger for their weekly fast-food trip? A lot remains to be answered, but one thing seems certain: the internet will be waiting with bated breath for more details.