Food-Fighting CEO Raises Specter of Past Failures

Chipotle and Panera's leaders made counterclaims about the quality of their products, raising the question of whether it's a good idea to pan a competitor.

One shouldn’t throw stones in glass houses … or contaminated burritos in struggling restaurants.

Yes, it’s been a dramatic week in the fast-food sector after two of its biggest figureheads went head-to-head over the quality of their products.

No matter who came out on top, the exchange indicated there’s probably a good reason why it’s rare for CEOs to bad mouth their competitors’ merchandise.

It all started last week, when Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Steve Ells told Business Insider that companies including McDonald’s and Panera Bread were misleading customers by claiming their food was “clean”.


Panera CEO Ron Shaich shot back by reminding the publication’s readers that Chipotle had experienced its own fair share of hygiene issues and “shouldn’t be throwing bombs”.

Chipotle has yet to fully recover from an E. coli outbreak in 2015 that sickened 55 people across 11 different states. It has since tried to clean up its image by stripping all preservatives and flavors from its menu.

Ells said competitors were misleading customers because they used so-called natural flavors, which are extracted from natural ingredients but still produced in a lab. “They don’t have a clean chicken nugget,” Ells said. “Because they still have industrial ingredients.”

The last thing Chipotle needs right now, though, is any reminder of E. coli scandal. Last month, the company booked a 76% fall in first-quarter profit as it still struggles to bring customers back to its stores.

There may be some method to Ells’ approach, though: his criticism also has brought attention to Chipotle’s turnaround efforts. And there are a few other CEOs out there who regularly pan competitors, seemingly with little fallout: T-Mobile’s John Legere comes to mind here.

But the problem with going negative is that it can make a CEO look nasty, perhaps even bringing their business ethics into question.

Some customers might also be offended by having their current choice of product ridiculed or undermined.

And let he who is without sin …

You might also like:
5 Rules for CEOs to Simplify Their Job
The Costs of CEO Failure
3 Steps for Turning Failure Around Through Continuous Innovation


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    We are in a period of rapid change. Customer needs, technologies, competitors and internal capabilities require companies to review and update their strategies for the new realities. In this workshop, strategy experts Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison will show you a systematic approach to strategic planning to help you refine or redefine your business strategy and approach including:

    • Learn what you need to know to develop an effective strategic plan. Put the right players on the strategic planning team.
    • Develop strategies that leverage your company’s unique position in the marketplace. Lift your management team beyond “business as usual” thought processes and activities.
    • Translate your strategies into action. Achieve your vision for success and generate superior financial results.
    • Identify exactly what you need to do now to position your company for future success.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.