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Cult Guac w/ Chipotle

I'm so hungry right now... Why?

Mike Miller and Joe Albano from Chipotle's Talent Acquisition team joins The Chad & Cheese to talk about food, brand, experience, marketing, free college, nurses, and does a brand really need an "employment brand"?

All of that while you grow hungry for your favorite burrito bowl. Brought to you by our friends at Smashfly - a Symphony Talent company.


Joel: This Chad and Cheese CULT BRAND podcast is supported by Smashfly recruiting technology built for the talent life cycle, and big believers in building relationships with brands, not jobs. Let Smashfly help tell your story and keep relationships at the heart of your CRM. For more information, visit today.

Intro: Hide your kids, lock the doors, you're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash, and Joe Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts. Complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark, bottle up boys and girls, it's time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.

Chad: Oh yeah.

Joel: I'm ready for a podcast with a little extra queso with it, how about you Chad?

Chad: Well, I like the guac, I know it's going to cost $2 more. Can I just have it? Just give it to me. I don't even want to ask for it anymore. Just put the guac on. It's delicious.

Joel: It's all delicious. And this is a great segue to today's guests. Let me introduce everyone to Joel Albano, and Michael Miller. Guys, welcome to the show from Chipotle.

Joe: Well, thank you. Thanks for having us.

Mike: Happy to be here.

Joel: Yeah, yeah let me give you a little applause there because-

Mike: Is that real applause?

Chad: Yeah. I think it's actually pronounced Meeler. It's not Miller. It's Meeler, right?

Joel: Meeler?

Chad: Mike Meeler, he's got the easiest name so we've got a screw it up, right?

Joel: And Joe was your nickname Albino in high school. It had to be, right?

Joe: It was my nickname in elementary school, middle school, high school, college, in my twenties, and in my thirties.

Joel: And for the record you are not actually an albino.

Joe: I am not. I respect the albino community but I am not part of them.

Joel: Obviously and they recruit vigorously.

Joe: I tried to.

Joel: We'll get to that in a little bit.

Joe: Great.

Joel: The albino recruiting strategy.

Chad: Guys, we have not used that. We have not used that in the office. Just so you know guys.

Joel: You're welcome guys.

Joe: Thank you so much.

Joel: Well for those who don't know you guys, let's get the elevator pitch on you individually. I'm sure most of our listeners know about Chipotle. But feel free to plug that as well.

Chad: Oh yeah.

Joel: And if you have a special coupon code for our listeners, feel free to sling that out there.

Joe: If we do, we'll keep you posted. But I will kick things off.

Joel: Awesome.

Joe: I'm Joseph Albano. I have been with Chipotle for about six years. My role with Chipotle is to really oversee our field recruitment team. So we have a team of 12 who basically support all 2,600 restaurants across the country from everything recruitment related from our entry level crew members all the way up through our senior executives working across the country.

Joel: Wow. 12 people?

Mike: That's a good elevator pitch Joe.

Joe: I've practiced in the mirror many times.

Mike: You show up on Monday, you come back.

Chad: All right Mike. Now you have to live up to that one.

Joe: Good luck.

Mike: I can't do it. I just live to support Joe guys. Mike Miller or Meeler, my parents cursed me with a very common name. So I'm going to go with this Meeler thing, see how it rolls for the weekend. And I've been at Chipotle for coming up on two years. And so truly, truly have the pleasure of supporting the best team that I have ever been on. So I'm responsible for recruitment operations.

Joel: Aww.

Mike: It's true, it's true.

Joe: He always knows what to say.

Mike: Recruitment operations-

Joel: So nice.

Mike: Well, look, I've been at some pretty cool brands, right? But this is my favorite brand, my favorite team. And I've been let's see here, I'm also responsible for talent marketing and talent branding. So everything in the talent acquisition world and how we can effectively market that and build a cool narrative, that's what we try to do. Yep.

Chad: Dig it.

Joel: Very cool, very cool. Well, Chad wants to get to the hard hitting questions, but I want to know before we get started, what do you guys order when you go to Chipotle?

Joe: Oh God. Okay, so it depends on if I'm trying to be on a diet and avoid carbs.

Mike: Which is always at the most inopportune time, Chad.

Joe: Right.

Joel: Screw that.

Joe: So I'm a burrito guy.

Mike: Tell him about our summer deal.

Joe: Well-

Mike: We would eat lunch at different times. So I would come back and say, "Haven't had lunch yet Joe?" And Joe would say, "Well, I already have but I'm up for it again." So we'd have double Lunch.

Joe: Yeah. I'll do a double lunch. One time I've done a triple lunch because I deserved it. Thank you.

Chad: Are you practicing to go against Kobayashi sometime soon?

Joe: One day. That is my ultimate dream in life is to be in a food eating competition. But until then-

Mike: Every day is practice.

Joe: Every day is practice. And everyday I get closer. So I am a burrito guy. I am obsessed with our new Carne Asada. However if it's not Carne Asada I'm getting Carnitas, I'm a brown rice, pinto beans, Carnitas, I will do the red tomatillo salsa with extra cheese. And then I will do chips and guac on the side. Thank you. Thank you.

Mike: Good.

Joe: And I should mention, I do double meat.

Mike: You're getting applause for the overeating. I think these are our guys.

Joe: My dream come true, people who understand me.

Mike: People who understand you. You found your brothers.

Joe: I found my niche.

Mike: What do I get? So I'm six foot six, I weigh about 300 pounds. So I try to go with the kids quesadilla.

Chad: That's a good call.

Mike: Which is sad but true. One of our team members likes-

Joel: Hold the chips.

Mike: Yeah. They like to order that for me. And I don't have the heart to give her the feedback so I just take it, eat it of course. I like Carne Asada. So I actually had, I deviated a little bit yesterday, Carne Asada burrito, skipped the beans but went rice, sour cream, cheese, guac. It was a winner.

Chad: I have to say that the burrito bowl to me is the best value, first and foremost. Sofritas with every freaking kind of bean you can throw on that thing. And double helping of guac, man.

Mike: Nice.

Chad: That's me right there, man. Yeah. And that's at least two meals.

Joe: Or one for me.

Chad: I'll say that's at least two meals for me. I'm not the overeater on the Chad and Cheese podcast. But yeah, dude, that is a staple for me.

Joe: Love that.

Joel: I'm a Barbacoa boy. I'm kind of surprised no one said that.

Joe: I love Barbacoa.

Joel: Barbacoa all day. Bowls, burritos. I don't care. It's all good.

Chad: Just as long as somebody else is buying. Okay. So first question. This is... You're booing free food?

Joel: I'm booing your comment that I'm cheap.

Chad: Everybody knows you're cheap.

Joel: I'm sending back your Christmas gifts.

Chad: So first question Chipotle, do you guys feel like Chipotle is a cult brand, or they're kind of like on their journey to being a cult brand? Joel and I, there's no question, Joel and I feel like you guys have reached cult status. I see lines out the damn door here in little Columbus, Indiana. But what do you guys feel internally?

Mike: What we want to be and where I think we're moving, I think what you're seeing with those lines and with those observations is that brand love that was maybe simmering for a little bit. And I think now it's boiling again. And so from a cult brand perspective, I think there's elements where, yeah, absolutely. But what I would say is that we're also really inclusive. So it's a lifestyle brand for many people. But as far as being culturally relevant, I think what we're saying is the renaissance of Chipotle as a culturally relevant brand.

Mike: Because we may have lost our way obviously for a little bit. But we're excited, right? So that excitement that you're seeing as part of the reinvigoration, the transformation of the brand from a consumer perspective, we feel that too. So it's really cool because it's not like we're going to an agency and saying, "How do we show up? What do we say? What are the vision and values? And how are we experienced?" We're excited about that. We're fans, we love the brand. So there's this like, if cult, then I would add lifestyle brand extension. And there's an undeniable family vibe that I think is absolutely present in our restaurants, in our support centers, and ultimately experienced by our consumers.

Joe: Absolutely. And one thing to add to that is when Chipotle started in 1993, we were just in one restaurant in Denver, Colorado. And we grew quickly and we grew via word of mouth. So I think if we were to look back at our history, we probably had more of that cult like presence or a cult brand presence back in the 90s.

Mike: They grew very organically, it was grass roots.

Joe: It grew organically. It grew through grass roots. And we never really had the need to invest in media and advertisement, whether it's TV, social, radio. We never had the need cause we just grew through word of mouth because people wanted a big ass burrito served quickly.

Joel: Yeah.

Mike: Yeah. Who doesn't?

Joe: Right.

Chad: How do you parlay that cult brand feeling into recruitment? And the biggest key for us, because we talk about it all the time, how do you ensure that your people feel it? And your people obviously being the employees, because if they feel it then obviously the customers feel it.

Joe: Sure.

Chad: Not to mention more than likely your employees are also customers.

Joe: So yeah, perfect segue. So when we look at our data, about 92% of our candidates at all levels are our customers as well. So I feel like I have one of the easiest jobs in the world to be a recruiter for Chipotle because I don't really need to give my Chipotle spiel. People are coming to me who kind of what you were saying before, and your restaurant in Columbus, Indiana, you go, the lines are out the door, the food is good, they're getting me through quickly. The people are great, our candidates are coming to us and sharing that and they want to be a part of that. And they want to help grow that into something bigger as we continue to grow.

Mike: I'm not the brightest person, you probably already know that in our time together. But one of the things that really struck me and Joe, and our team earlier in the years kind of hit us over the head that there really is no difference between... Oftentimes when you are in these functions you're working in corporate settings, even though we're a big company, but we really don't feel that corporate. But there's this distinction between defining the customer experience, the guest experience, and the candidate experience. For us it's one in the same. So it's really holistic. And that influences the way we communicate, right? There's just, we don't have to have a separate line, a separate narrative. We're talking to the same people who already love the brand.

Chad: That point though, it just becomes experience. And one of the things that we're seeing and we're hearing a lot about is just the fracturing of brand. You have a brand and then you have the consumer brand. And then you have the candidates employer brand, and then you have a... it seems like this fracturing. When we're making things more complex, but from what I'm hearing from you guys is that there is this holistic brand that is one in the same, and that's one of the things that you try to stay cohesive with. Is that where you are? Or is that where you're trying to go?

Mike: It is the foundation post transformation. I think Joe can probably speak to the legacy perspective. But I would say that we've probably just entered the room where that is the atmosphere. It's something that we're absolutely trying to continue to cultivate in a number of ways. We work really closely with Chris Brandt, our chief marketing officer, and his team in ensuring that it's the same voice. And we all know that doesn't always happen. In fact, I don't think we've ever had this much alignment with a marketing team.

Joe: Correct.

Mike: And what I mean specifically is if you take a look at what Joe was saying that early on it was this grassroots, authentic word of mouth experience. And so we're really careful when we look at an advertising platform and program now, it's our people. So it's still authentic. It's still real. It's our own people that we're highlighting. And so we try to carry that over, pull that through across the proverbial bridge to the recruitment narrative as well. So what I'm saying specifically is let's keep this focused on our own people telling our story.

Joel: Hey guys, you mentioned at some point in there losing or the brand weakening, and obviously going from a one restaurant organization to what you guys are now with 2,600 restaurants. You've obviously had challenges in the news with whether it be health issues and the meat or lettuce, whatever. How do you guys, just like every brand has challenges, how do you guys sort of keep that north star and overcome some of those challenges, whether it be brand or recruiting related?

Joe: Well, I think looking at it from 30,000 feet up. I think a big help for us is really realigning our executive officer team. And so Brian Nickel, our CEO joined Chipotle about two years ago as well. We had a lot of different focuses. And we were basically stretching people a little too thin. And it was really simplifying everything we were doing, making sure that our number one focus was food safety and quality of food. But then making sure that we had fantastic people within the organization to prep, to cook, to serve that food, and give these people awesome opportunities to develop into a career within the restaurant industry at Chipotle.

Mike: There is an acute focus on food culture. Let's not lose sight in our growth, and as we scale with keeping the main thing the main thing, right? Taking excellent care of the customers and having really great crave-able food as he would say.

Joel: And you mentioned working with the CMO, which I know both Chad and I, spidey senses tingled when you said that. Because we really champion HR recruitment, talent acquisition teams really engaging with marketing and brand and messaging and all that good stuff. So for the organizations out there that isn't doing that, why is it important and what exactly do you guys do in terms of working with your marketing department?

Joe: Well, I'll go from the legacy standpoint. So I've been with Chipotle for six years. And marketing and recruiting never had a relationship within Chipotle. We were like the ex-husband and ex-wife who are still mad at each other for the fight in 1997.

Joel: Ouch.

Mike: I'm experiencing this.

Joe: Mike's going through that personally.

Joel: Ouch.

Joe: No. But so we've never had a great relationship. So what we were talking about before, we had two very different brand messages going out. We had a recruiting brand message and we had a food brand message. So that was the legacy story. And then I'll let Mike go from present to now.

Mike: I then had an arm and an opportunity. We have a really, really awesome chief people officer, Marissa Andrada who she's taken pity on me for 20 years, and has let me help out with some people building for some really great brands. This one truly, truly being my favorite because I have a burrito addiction. And so when we came in, the order of the day was really get some alignment, we really took, we took a 25 year old brand and kind of flipped it into startup mode. But sort of the best of startup mode because essentially you're well-funded and profitable and have no debt. So then how do you focus in on the vision? It has to do with building capability in the organization, right? We understand that. We've seen that done well at times and certainly have seen that fail with organizations.

Mike: I'm sure there are many people who have more technical skills from a recruitment perspective than I do. But I'm a frustrated storyteller. And a frustrated writer. And really love aligning... So starting with Red Bull in my career, took a look at how I could be that bridge between the work that talent acquisition is doing and how can we partner that up with marketing because we're telling the same story yet we often, as you've mentioned this, we oftentimes see it's a very disjointed approach. And so I think once I realized, "Hey, look, these can be our friends. We can have a relationship that really is mutually beneficial." Because what happens is we can keep that message and that narrative really alive as we're talking to thousands and thousands of candidates. And so I had an opportunity early on to work with the executive leadership team and really saw their humility, their alignment, and how fired up they were to ensure that essentially we had become a blockbuster video of burritos. And so Chris really led that charge.

Mike: And it wasn't one of those things where everybody was really respectful, but they're kind of looking at me like, "Okay. So you're really going to help us do this and you're going to help us build these all star teams." And so we were working 24 seven straight through weekends. And then finally I got, it was a Saturday night, and I was submitting some candidate. And Chris said, "Hey." He texted me, "Give me a call." He said, "Man, stop. We're good. This is going to wait until Monday." And then I thought, okay, we're on to something as far as the trust building. But then I think from just the interpersonal relationship that we built and then helping him hire his team, he was very inclusive with us. And so I thought, this is going to be part of the secret salsa of building a world class talent acquisition function, was to make sure that we're really in that wheelhouse of narrative creation and brand creation. So don't mean to overshare with you there. But that's really been just such a key part of our success I think over the last couple of years.

Joe: Well, and it feels like at Chipotle, we've had a come to Jesus moment where recruiting and marketing realized that we were both needing to be codependent on one another. We can't offer new menu items, grow sales without having all the people in place. And we can't have all the people in place and double in size and restaurants without having our marketing team supporting us on the backend.

Mike: And you know what? I think the leadership team models really, really well, which then of course just trickles down very naturally, is this notion that we really partners... There's this family vibe, we're partners to each other. So it's not exclusively from the marketing lens, or we call human resources people experience or from the people experience lens. It's really how can we get the right people, build the right capability in the organization, and make sure that we're really rowing in the same direction? And not sitting there boring each other by leading with our respective functional knowledge. That's not going to help anybody. We've all seen organizations that really sink in that.

Chad: You had gold that you provided to PR and marketing. And let me read this real quick. Chipotle is covering 100% of tuition costs upfront for 75 different types of business and technology degrees through their partnership with Guild Education. So if you're in marketing and PR, and you get your hands around something, like this is gold. Not just from the standpoint of making the brand look great from one side, but making it look great from all sides. So how did this happen? Well, again, the genesis around this, it makes a hell of a lot of sense because obviously this is in many cases a high volume place where you're looking for retention, you're looking for great people. How did this come together?

Joel: That's gold, Jerry.

Joe: It is golden. I think when I kind of take a step back and look at what we're doing at Chipotle every day, it's cultivating a better world. That's really what we believe in doing every day. And we employ approximately 80,000 people across the country. And we know in 2019, soon to be 2020, cost of education is going up. We're in this sort of gig economy where our people might need to work two or three jobs just to go to school and have a basic living. So we had a big aha moment. We introduced our Guild partnership back in 2015.

Joe: And it wasn't as robust as it is now. But about a year ago, the conversation at the table was, "What can we do better for our people? How can we treat our people better?" And we did a lot of surveying. We talked to a lot of our folks across the country and one of the top benefits that we could offer was, how can we improve our tuition reimbursement program? And from that was born the debt free degree program.

Mike: It's interesting too because our goal from a people experience, really the mantra from a people experience perspective is to ensure that we're creating an environment where people can thrive and pursue their passion. What's interesting about it is that we understand that people may not stay with us forever, right? So it's not a situation where we're saying, "Hey, we'll do these awesome things for you and your family. But you have to be on a fast track to becoming a general manager." We understand this may be a side hustle for somebody, but want to ensure that in our effort, as Joe said, to cultivate a better world. Hey, that doesn't really just end within the walls of our restaurants. So if we can take great care of you while you're with us, and you wind up going somewhere else, it really does fulfill that mission.

Joe: And on the flip side, there are a good amount of people who work in our restaurants who are pursuing these debt free degrees, who ended taking that with triple even further, whether it's going down in a multiunit capacity or even transferring to some of the roles in our restaurant support centers in both Columbus, Ohio, and Newport beach, California.

Chad: Well, who had the holy shit moment though? Because this is really a holy shit moment like you think about it, it's like first off, the economy is doing well to an extent, right? We want to be able to retain people and our business is people. So we have to take care of those people. Who was the person that had the holy shit moment that everybody else went, "Ah, there it is."

Mike: Fair enough. I think I can answer that. Now as much as I would like to say that it's me and Joe.

Joe: I'll take credit.

Mike: This was a conversation between our CEO Brian, who are our group reports into through Maurice, our chief people officer, in combination with... Now guys, I've spent most of my career trying to steer clear of comp and benefits. But I've got to say we have an innovator in that space. Scott Stanson, who's our director of comp and ben, and is just always looking at things from a different lens. So I would probably give that initial credit to those three. And then you look at it and it's one of those things that once it's in front of you, you say, "This is a no brainer." Even though really nobody else is doing or at the scale that we're doing it. So it was very easy for our team to get behind it obviously as well as marketing to evangelize it.

Joe: Yeah. And I think it's as simple what can we do to make the lives of our people easier? So they don't have to work a four to eight hour shift at Chipotle, and then drive Uber for four to five hours to make ends meet. They can work at Chipotle, they get a free meal. We pay for them to go on break. And then we also pay for them for their education. So they can work at Chipotle and kind of that's it.

Joel: Frankly, as a potential candidate, you had me at free burrito. But the other stuff is pretty nice too.

Mike: Well, that means we have you forever.

Joel: I know you guys are our loyal listeners of the show.

Joe: Yes. We love your show.

Joel: Yeah. You guys, if someone calls in sick, apparently you send them to a nurse that then has some sort of checklist to verify that they're actually sick and not just hung over. Can you explain what's going on with that?

Mike: The nurse, by the way, is on her way to you guys right now.

Joe: To make sure you're not hung over.

Joel: I'll save her time and let her know we'll fail the hung over test for sure.

Joe: No. So as we talked about before, Mike mentioned, we have been building a culture of food safety for the past three to four years. And a big portion of that is we want to make sure that our employees and the restaurants are not coming to work sick. So we've created things like making sure that one of the benefits our crew members get is sick time, paid time off. So they don't feel the pressure to come to work sick and in return get other people sick and infect our customers. So one of the other changes we've made is providing a nurse hotline for our people if they're not feeling well, we provide a nurse hotline for them to connect with. And they'll just run through common symptoms and again, they'll determine, "Okay, are you just hung over? Did you just have a really good Saturday night? You can work Sunday. But if you are actually sick, do not come into work. Use your sick time, rest up and be good to go."

Joel: Got you. And it's sort of an early warning sign for you guys. If the employees are getting sick, you can nip it in the bud so customers don't start getting sick. Is that part of the strategy as well?

Joe: Absolutely.

Joel: So there's not a rampant drinking problem with Chipotle workers. It's actually about food safety. So I'm glad that you've laid to rest any concerns that I had about a potential drinking problem.

Joe: Well thank you. Mike has a drinking problem. But that's [crosstalk 00:26:08]-

Joel: Okay guys, we appreciate the time. We know you're busy with everything going on there.

Joe: Oh, thank you.

Joel: For any of our listeners who, for God's sakes, don't know about Chipotle are you guys, where would you send them to learn more?

Joe: We have a couple of different avenues, so I would always highlight our people of Chipotle at Instagram. It's an in depth look into what's going on in the restaurants and our support centers. And you can also find us at

Chad: Excellent.

Joel: Thanks guys. We out.

Chad: We out.

Ema: Hi, I'm Ema. Thanks for listening to my dad, the Chad, and his buddy Cheese. This has been the Chad and Cheese podcast. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss a single show. Be sure to check out our sponsors because their money goes to my college fund. For more visit

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