Chipotle Throws Down The Margarita Gauntlet

Today, April 29.

Is the day restaurants serving poorly made Margaritas will start worrying that the standards for the cocktail will be irrevocably changed. Because that’s also the day Chipotle Mexican Grill will debut a new Margarita program made with super-premium tequila and fresh juices at most of its restaurants.

With nearly 900 shops set to upgrade their Margarita making, the Denver-based chain leaves behind their current, mix-based Margs, with the new style to be made to order with made with Patrón Silver tequila, triple sec, fresh lime and lemon juices and organic agave nectar, served on the rocks and priced between $6.50 and $8.

Not all of the fast casual chain’s units can or will serve alcohol (beer is also on many menus), and Chiptole will retain their current Margarita, made with Sauza tequila at a lower price, though made with the same fresh-juice-based recipe. But the splash the chain has made by announcing their Margarita upgrade has made them the envy of the drinks business, if only for a moment.

A few things occur after hearing this news. First, the commitment to fresh juices combined with the ubiquity and popularity of Chipotle units (As I write this, I strolled the busiest chain restaurant strip in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, and at 1:15, more than a dozen folks queued up at the Chiptole unit counter, while there was no wait at the closest six competitors) means a whole generation of Margarita drinkers are about to be schooled on what fresh really tastes like. That will make them sterner judges of Margaritas made with mixes, especially when they are charged a higher price.

What of restaurants that don’t prepare to respond to this game-changer or that don’t provide their servers with legitimate explanations they can share with customers when they are asked, “Why aren’t your Margaritas made with fresh juices?” They better be prepared for some blowback, because fresh always tastes better, and while there are always operational excuses for avoiding the cost and labor involved, few of them will make an impression on savvy customers recently experienced with a fresh and relatively inexpensive Margarita.

Second, the presence of Patron may instantly legitimize the Chipotle program with many consumers, but will it also undercut the brand’s hard-won super-premium reputation? If nothing else, other restaurants might find it harder to charge more for the brand, or to feature their Patron offerings as somehow something special when the iconic brand is so prominently displayed at such casual, cafeteria-style spots as Chipotle.

Of course, when you want to be the biggest, all that no longer matters. The volume that is potentially gained at nearly 1,000 units (with the number growing) will more than make up for the few operations that decide to highlight another tequila instead.

When high-profile companies make changes in their business practices, it’s not long before others follow. Even if somehow the new Chipotle fresh Patron Margarita program doesn’t work exactly the way they’d like it to, you can be sure many of the first people in line today for a taste will be beverage execs of all sorts, just to see what they’re up against. Or at least the smart ones.


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