The news, which was confirmed by Chipotle — "it’s a growth seed idea we are exploring," company spokesman Chris Arnold told Bloomberg on Wednesday — was met with excitement. Media outlets, rushing to cover the discovery, pondered how soon it will be before we see the first branch. Some even wondered if McDonald's, the largest hamburger slinger in the world, already had reason to worry.
But it also raised an important question: Why is Chipotle directing its attention to the hamburger scene, one of the most saturated in the American food industry?
On the surface, the move is a bit perplexing. The market for burger chains is almost four times the size of the market for Mexican fare, according to data from market research firm Technomic. There's a lot more money being spent on ground beef patties, but there isn't much wiggle room for growth. McDonald's, which has struggled to woo customers in recent years, can attest.
But zoom into the market for fancier burger chains, and a different story emerges.
"Once you look more deeply, you realize that it actually makes a lot of sense," said Darren Tristano, who is the president of Technomic.
Tristano points out that the fast-casual burger category, which includes the likes of Shake Shack, is growing quickly. What's more, it still represents a small portion of the overall burger market.
"The fast-casual burger category grew at nearly 16 percent last year," he said. "If you looked at the overall burger market, you would see that fast casual only represents 5 to 7 percent of it."
In that light, the news makes a bit more sense. Chipotle isn't thinking about the McDonald's core customer; it's dreaming of all the hamburger lovers out there who rarely, if ever, eat Big Macs.
Of course, in order to be successful, "Better Burger," if it ever comes to be, will have to distinguish itself from a field of suitable competitors. How it will do that remains unclear — we don't, after all, know much (or anything, really) about Chipotle's plans, other than what can be extrapolated from its current business model and gleaned from the name it recently filed a trademark for. But it's easy enough to guess.
The company's mission to serve food with integrity, which it has clung to even when it has come at the expense of its business, will likely play a role. So, too, might the sort of food experience that has defined not only Chipotle, but ShopHouse and Pizzeria Locale, its two much smaller sister brands. That would mean a narrow menu, with quality ingredients and a high level of customization. It also could mean "Better Burger" won't experiment with breakfast or dessert.
Food aside, there's a suspicion a Chipotle-backed hamburger joint might look to adult beverages for some edge. Namely, an alcoholic refreshment that's often paired with hamburgers.
"Now that they're selling hand-shaken margaritas at Chipotle, who knows? Maybe Better Burger will sell local craft beer," said Tristano. "I certainly wouldn't be surprised."