There’s nothing quite like the hyper-efficiency of Chipotle. The speed at which Chipotle employees can assemble and ring up a burrito the size of a three-month-old is awe-inspiring, and even when some menu items miss the mark, it tends to be more technical error than anything else (such as the overly steamed cauliflower rice or the chewy smoked brisket, both of which had great flavor despite their other flaws). But the emphasis on efficiency has led the brand to avoid chasing certain trends in the fast food world—and that might be why you never see dessert on Chipotle’s permanent menu.
To understand Chipotle’s lack of sweet stuff, we must zoom back to the years 1998-2005, the era in which McDonald’s was a major investor in Chipotle. In order to wring the most value out of its investment, McDonald’s spent years encouraging Chipotle to adopt certain fast food conventions, recommending (among other things) drive-thru lanes and a breakfast menu. Chipotle declined on both counts.
Though Chipotle eventually did adopt drive-thru lanes of a sort, it was years after McDonald’s fully divested from the company. But as recently as 2019, Chipotle’s CFO reiterated that the brand was not interested in serving breakfast. Why? Because the morning is when employees are prepping fresh ingredients for the lunchtime rush, and a breakfast menu would only pull focus from the restaurant’s core offerings.
The same logic might explain the dearth of sweet items available at Chipotle. Most of the other major players in fast food have some sort of dessert offering, from McDonald’s famous apple pies to Taco Bell’s cinnamon twists to Wendy’s Frosty to Chick-fil-A’s chocolate fudge brownies. But everything on the Chipotle menu is decidedly savory, and the closest thing you’ll get to a dessert is a Mexican Coca-Cola. Why no post-carnitas confections, Chipotle?
It turns out that Chipotle has dabbled in dessert—though only internally. Here’s what a representative for Chipotle told The Takeout via email (emphasis ours):
Over the past four years, we have tested a handful of dessert items, however, nothing has passed the stage-gate process for a national rollout yet. Some of these include buñuelos, a flat fried fritter topped with honey, sugar, cinnamon and served with an apple dipping sauce, and a Mexican Chocolate Shake.
Buñuelos? Apple dipping sauce? A Mexican chocolate shake? It seems impossible that such delicious-sounding items haven’t landed on menus nationwide. But then again, the pace of innovation at behemoth chains can take time.
The “stage-gate process” mentioned above just refers to the multi-step approach to bringing any menu item to life. It involves market research, menu development, recipe testing, price determination, test markets—the list goes on. All of those steps, taken together, can span multiple years. Additionally, even seemingly straightforward menu items can require a surprising amount of investment, such as Chipotle’s quesadillas, which require an entirely separate assembly line.
The Mexican Chocolate Shake debuted in 2018, exclusively at Chipotle’s NYC test kitchen, but hasn’t spread outward to other locations since. That doesn’t mean that it won’t make further appearances eventually, but quesadillas (which were introduced at the same time as the milkshake) evidently took priority, joining the nationwide menu in 2021. Hopefully the test run of the Mexican Chocolate Shake didn’t result in constantly “broken” equipment, like the McDonald’s McFlurry, or we’ll never get to experience it.
The buñuelos, meanwhile, “flopped” after being introduced regionally in 2017. Which is a shame, because they were specifically designed to make use of Chipotle’s current equipment and wouldn’t have required elaborate or expensive ingredients (the dipping sauce appeared to vary between apple and chocolate). But if you’ll remember, 2017 was a low point for the Chipotle brand, due to the E. coli outbreaks splashed across headlines at the time. Maybe that was bad timing to roll out a flashy new menu item—it could have come across as a desperate ploy to lure back skittish customers. Or, hey, maybe the buñuelos simply weren’t that great, as some 2017 reviews suggest.
While the Chipotle representative was unable to share more information about which dessert projects are being pursued and/or prioritized, I hold out hope for an iconic Mexican dessert to join the Chipotle lineup sooner rather than later. Pandemic spending patterns have demonstrated that we all long for comfort foods right now, and I can’t think of anything much more comforting than plunking a piping-hot buñuelo into a condiment cup of chocolate sauce.
In the meantime, it sounds like the brand will continue to focus on what it does best: assembly-line burritos made from fresh ingredients, and charging extra for guac.