Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. said on Tuesday that it would introduce queso nationwide next week, making it the latest Mexican chain to offer the popular cheese sauce.
The company joins Del Taco Restaurants Inc., which introduced queso last month, as well as Moe’s Southwest Grill and Qdoba Mexican Eats, both of which already had queso.
Moe’s, in fact, on Tuesday said it plans to give queso away on “Free Queso Day” Sept. 21.
For Chipotle, the item provides the chain with a highly popular add-on at a time when the company is looking to kickstart weak sales. Queso has long been the most requested item at the chain, which has resisted the request.
The company says it has added queso now because it found a way to make it with all-natural ingredients. “We never added it to our menu before now because we wouldn’t use the industrial additives used in most quesos,” CEO and company founder Steve Ells said in a statement.
“Additives make typical queso very consistent and predictable, but are not at all I keeping with our food culture,” he added. “Our queso may vary slightly depending on the characteristics of the aged cheddar cheese used in each batch.”
Chipotle is turning to queso as part of a strategy to reignite sales lost in 2016, when unit volumes fell 23 percent following a series of foodborne illness outbreaks in the fall of 2015.
The company’s same-store sales have been recovering in 2017, but that recovery has slowed and there are concerns it could stop altogether following a norovirus outbreak at a location in Virginia this summer.
Chipotle started testing queso at its “Next Kitchen” in New York City in the summer, and then expanded that test to 350 locations in Southern California and Colorado only last month.
Yet the chain had sent strong signals from the get-go that it planned to roll out queso nationally in September, with plans to use the cheese sauce as a feature in national ads expected to be rolled out this month.
“We came to the conclusion that we need new news,” Ells said on the company’s second quarter earnings call in July. “We think that queso is going to help us with that new news.”
Chipotle says it uses aged cheddar cheese, tomatillos, tomatoes and several varieties of peppers in its queso.
The company says it received customer feedback, tweaked the recipe and the ingredient proportions “slightly” to arrive at the final recipe, which “has proved popular with customers.”
Customers can order queso on their entrée or as a side. Prices vary slightly by city, but range from $1.25 to add it to an entrée or $5.25 for a large side order.
Chipotle’s addition of queso to its national menu will come two weeks after Del Taco introduced Queso Blanco to its 550-unit chain. Del Taco’s queso will be added to menu items like its Queso Crunch Taco, Queso Fries or Queso Loaded Nachos, as well as Chips and Queso Dip. Customers can add the sauce to any item for 50 cents.
And on Tuesday, the 700-unit Moe’s says it will give customers a 6-ounce cup of queso and chips at participating locations on Sept. 21. It will also launch a “24-hour Queso Hotline” to “support and comfort all queso obsessed fans that put queso before everything else.”
Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]
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