Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

Are You Changing the Menu or the Food?

I recently read The Fast Food Revolutionary, a WSJ profile of Chipotle founder Steve Ells. If you’re not familiar with Chipotle, it is a successful fast-casual chain known for a simple menu, food prepared directly in front of you using fresh ingredients, and really big burritos. It started in Denver in 1993 and now has over 100 locations. In the past decade, the menu has not changed in any noticeable way.

In the article, Ells says something profound:

People ask me why I bother to hire chefs like Nate Appleman or Kyle Connaughton when we never change our menu. We may never change our menu, but we are always changing our food.

Chipotle is a company obsessed with focus and execution, a company that refuses to deviate from its mission. Many companies, especially startups, tinker endlessly with who they are. They constantly change their menu, hoping to attract more revenue and customers, but often at the expense of the original product and customers.

Of course, sometimes it takes a number of experiments and false starts to define your menu. Until you have an answer to that question, all of your time and energy should be dedicated to the Build, Measure, and Learn cycle described in The Lean Startup.

Once you know your menu, embrace it, celebrate it, and talk about it constantly to your employees and customers. But as a company, put everything you have into the food. Every day, ask yourself, how can this be better? How can we execute better, remove obstacles, and improve the experience?

From Chipotle’s perspective, their food is endlessly changing, but from our perspective, it never changes. Make small, subtle changes to your food, but do so in incremental ways that are imperceptible to your users. Satisfied customers don’t crave change, they crave the food and experience they love.

It’s true that the best companies do expand their menu at times and smart startups know when to pivot. Apple gets into the music business, Starbucks adds Frappuccinos, juice and smoothies, and even Chipotle is considering breakfast food. The most successful expansion is when the product fits perfectly within the company’s core mission or when the company intentionally expands its vision to accommodate it, as when Apple embraced its Digital Hub strategy in 2001. On the flip side, Howard Shultz returned to Starbucks when he saw that their intense focus on coffee had been lost in an effort to chase lunch customers, which eventually started to push away their core audience.

In another interview, Ells said:

It’s important to keep the menu focused, because if you just do a few things, you can ensure that you do them better than anybody else.

Doing a few things really, really well is hard. Delivering small improvements that build on your core vision rather than detract from it is challenging. Working everyday to execute better takes intense focus on minor details.

What’s especially hard, though, is that none of this is sexy. Blank slates and new features attract enthusiastic designers and developers in ways that legacy code and cautious refreshes often do not. The press doesn’t write articles about small improvements to your products. Headlines are reserved for additions to the menu. Bold changes are celebrated simply for being bold, when smart and effective change is what really matters.

The press, investors, and many users have an insatiable desire for the new thing. Fools listen to them.

Perfect your menu, then spend every day improving your food.