Does Chipotle Already Own the Next Chipotle?

As I’ve written before, Chipotle deserves recognition as one of the most innovative companies in America, even if food service lacks the sexiness of high-tech. And of course successful high-tech companies innovate more than once. There’s the iPod, yes, but also the iPhone and then the iPad.

To that end, Robert Lillegard of Quick Serve Restaurant Magazine thinks Chipotle is ahead of the curve in one of the new growth segments:

India and China are the world’s most populous countries, but so far Asian food has made only limited inroads in the American quick-serve industry. But that’s all set to change. Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research for Mintel Menu Insights, says the market is wide open for an Asian concept with a mid-market price point and a semi-upscale feel. He compares the situation to that of a few years ago when Chipotle was starting to become prominent.

“There was very high end for casual-dining Mexican and then there was lower,” Giandelone says. “Chipotle kind of changed that by offering that in-between. The same is kind of true with Asian food right now.”

The interesting thing here, as Lillegard notes, is that Chipotle may already own the Chipotle of Asian food in the form of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, a restaurant whose one location is conveniently located near my office and where we’ve been eating frequently for months. Like Chipotle it offers an assembly-line style composition of a meal. But relative to Chipotle the assembly line still doesn’t work quite as smoothly, which I think is probably why they haven’t rolled out other branches of the concept yet. But they’ve been tweaking the formula, adding a lettuce bowl for the carb-adverse and I believe dropping the initial sandwich option, which created unrealistic expectations of a more authentic banh mi experience.

To my eye the biggest problem facing them is simply that it’s a little hard to explain what the concept is. If you were talking to a friend who’d never been to a Chipotle before, you could describe it as a “burrito place.” ShopHouse has an Asian theme but doesn’t feature dishes that will be familiar from your favorite Asian restaurant. Instead the best explanation is probably to analogize it to Chipotle—it’s like a burrito bowl except with Asian flavors rather than Tex-Mex ones.