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Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. tapped the head of Taco Bell as its next chief executive officer, turning to a fast-food veteran who drove growth with brash, indulgent dishes such as Doritos Locos Tacos.
Brian Niccol, 43, who had served as CEO of Yum! Brands Inc.’s Taco Bell division, will replace Chipotle founder Steve Ells — a dramatic changing of the guard that threatens to reshape the burrito chain’s culture. Ells, who will remain chairman, began Chipotle in 1993 as an alternative to fast-food restaurants and the company has derided the kind of fare that Taco Bell sells.
Investors applauded the move, sending Chipotle shares as much as 13 percent higher in late trading.
Niccol, who’s led Taco Bell since 2015, has been credited with helping to turn around sales and speeding the introduction of technology at the chain. Now, he’ll be asked to do the same for a struggling company that’s been rocked by a string of foodborne illnesses spanning several years, along with a recent data breach.
Niccol, who said he has “tremendous respect for the Chipotle brand and its powerful purpose,” will now be in charge of a chain obsessed with promoting the quality of its ingredients — a big change from his past role.
“His expertise in digital technologies, restaurant operations and branding make him a perfect fit for Chipotle as we seek to enhance our customer experience, drive sales growth and make our brand more relevant, ” Ells, 52, said.
Niccol will start at Chipotle on March 5, and is also joining a board of directors that’s been criticized in the past for being too insular.
Niccol started at Taco Bell in 2011 and was also credited with introducing breakfast items at the chain, which now has about 7,000 restaurants globally. He’s also held leadership jobs at Pizza Hut and began his career at Procter & Gamble Co.
Niccol earned an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Taco Bell president Julia Felss Masino and Liz Williams, head of the brand’s international business, will take on Niccol’s role, Yum said.