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Center Store Alert: Chipotle "Simply Leads the Way" Again

flour tortillasThere has been a flurry of corporate announcements in packaged food on the topic of simplifying product formulations for a new consumer era. The interest in less processed food is growing rapidly in the U.S. market as our own attitudinal data confirm. 

Historically, this interest first emerged in the fresh produce department of American supermarkets, as the organic movement spread mass market concern over chemical residues left by conventional agricultural practices. Then, the awareness spread into the center store of American supermarkets, where symbolism of heavy food processing is perhaps most visible to concerned consumers, especially moms. While not all categories have been deeply affected, the trend is expanding into new categories as we speak. 

growth in simple foodsMany see this simplicity trend as something contained within the world of retail grocery. And they look for change agents within the grocery store and the home pantry. But this narrow-context framing may set up some brands to be blindsided. 

Chipotle’s recent decision to reformulate its tortillas to a 100 percent natural standard poses an interesting question for makers and marketers of ingredients, sauces and other meal staples in retail grocery. Could the restaurant world actually start triggering the fresh, less processed trend in retail cooking ingredients once thought to be immune due to their ‘ingredient’ status? Today, who really questions what is in their tortillas at a supermarket? It’s just a tortilla and looks as simple as could be, packaged in transparent plastic bags and merchandised on endcaps near fresh perimeter departments. Moreover, the category is growing well, so there is certainly no topline signal that processing load is a real problem to be dealt with — yet. 

While grocery tortillas are getting a pass, largely because consumers have no other option at most conventional stores, the fastest-growing restaurant ambassador of fresh, less processed food has now turned its considerable cultural and marketing spotlight onto how tortillas are produced for sale in the U.S. market. They are walking consumers through the why of processed tortilla R&D and inadvertently teaching them which chemicals to look out for on ingredient panels of retail products. Other Web sources also provide interested consumers with ingredient breakdowns (e.g., ShopWell). 

Packaged tortillas are at the cutting edge of the fresh, less processed cultural movement. This movement is starting to expand into grocery categories that once had a pass with regard to emerging expectations of purity. And packaged items on the fresh perimeter, from pre-packed entrees in the deli to lunch kits, are now under increasing scrutiny by some consumers. This is in part because restaurant ingredients are coming under greater scrutiny. Where there is overlap of ingredients sold into restaurant operators and on grocery shelves, the trend toward simplicity on restaurant menus will only continue to ignite concerns in the grocery sector. 

While par baked (shorthand for partial baking) artisanal bread—with all natural formulations—can be produced at a central production facility and distributed great distances (e.g., La Brea Bakery, Corner Bakery), tortillas will require an even more decentralized production model to become a ‘fresh, less processed’ category in the U.S. This could end up working in the favor of local, artisanal producers or regional ones. 

It may be a sign of things to come, that a fast casual restaurant chain starts educating Americans about what’s in their packaged foods or at least causes them to start reading the ingredient panels of ‘fresh’ meal components they have not yet been used to examine. We have not measured the number of consumers influenced by Chipotle’s move, but their considerable brand credibility should not be underestimated. 

Chipotle’s tortilla conversion may just end up being the tipping point that makes mass market fresh perimeter packaged foods come under greater ingredient scrutiny by consumers. 


Consumer Package Goods Retail/Shopper Insights Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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