Chipotle's Mark Crumpacker Talks Chorizo, Comebacks, And Cocaine

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“It’s great to be back. Obviously what’s happened and what’s ongoing is something I wouldn’t wish on anybody. But stuff happens.”

That’s Mark Crumpacker, the chief creative officer and marketing lead at Chipotle, upon returning to the restaurant chain after a three-month leave of absence. Following a cluster of food-safety incidents Chipotle experienced in the last 14 months, which devastated the company’s business and is the subject of our new Fast Company feature, Crumpacker was indicted for cocaine possession, on June 30. It was a bizarre aside to an already tumultuous time for Chipotle, though many observers saw it as yet another interruption in Chipotle’s protracted recovery. On September 8, the company surprised some outsiders by announcing Crumpacker’s reinstatement, after he completed a drug rehabilitation program. “I’m really lucky,” Crumpacker tells me just two weeks later.

Since returning, Crumpacker’s team has launched a new ad campaign, in partnership with Austin-based agency GSD&M, highlighting the “royal treatment” Chipotle gives its ingredients. The company has also completed its nationwide rollout of its newest menu item, chorizo, which Crumpacker says was on the product roadmap before the chain’s E. coli issues. “We were like wait a minute, we can’t introduce something new before we got all of the food-safety measures in place,” he says.

This focus on promoting Chipotle’s ingredients post-outbreak is intentional, Crumpacker explains. These efforts, along with the company’s previously introduced rewards program Chiptopia and animated film A Love Story, were designed to remind customers what they loved about Chipotle’s food in the first place, before its reputation was muddied. “Obviously our marketing is built on this idea of fresh, high-quality ingredients,” Crumpacker says. “So [the food-safety issues were] sort of like the ultimate insult to that position.”

Before Crumpacker’s indictment occurred, these kinds of insights were why I had been eager to speak with him for our profile of Chipotle and its efforts to rebuild itself in the aftermath of a series of foodborne-illness outbreaks. Crumpacker, after all, was central in helping the Mexican fast-casual chain foster a glossy aura around its brand, which became synonymous with fresh ingredients and an ethical value set. Given the damage the food-safety crisis did to the company’s reputation, I knew Crumpacker would prove crucial in trying to repair Chipotle’s “Food With Integrity” image. What’s more, he had known Chipotle’s co-CEOs Steve Ells and Monty Moran since college—all three attended the University of Colorado at Boulder and grew up not far from their alma mater—and could offer deep insight into their strategy going forward.

We were originally scheduled to meet at Chipotle’s office in New York on July 7. Then, days before Independence Day, news broke of a New York district attorney investigation into a city drug ring. Crumpacker was ensnared in the probe and charged with seven counts of cocaine possession; he was allegedly caught on wiretaps 13 times requesting orders of drugs to his apartment in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood. As Crumpacker was preparing to surrender to police, Ells and Moran sent out an email explaining to employees that “Crumpacker is apparently under investigation for one or more misdemeanor offenses, and he has been placed on administrative leave from Chipotle while this matter is being investigated.”

A naive part of me wondered whether Crumpacker would still make our meeting that coming Thursday. But on July 1, a representative of Burson-Marsteller, the crisis-management PR firm that has supported Chipotle since the outbreaks, told me via phone that our meeting would be indefinitely postponed. My previously scheduled meeting with Ells the following week, however, was still on.

When I arrived then at the company’s New York corporate outpost, also near Union Square, I found the lights off in Crumpacker’s office, which is adjacent to Ells’s. Rows of advertising awards lined his shelves, from the slew of successful marketing campaigns he produced for Chipotle in the past decade. They now sat neglected, lacking their glisten in the darkness, like the preserved childhood bedroom of a high-school track star who no longer lives with his parents.

Though clearly a delicate subject, Ells doesn’t wince when I ask during our conversation about Crumpacker, his longtime friend and colleague. “Mark certainly was very influential in helping to develop the brand and giving it voice,” he says. “We all really care about Mark. He’s on leave so he can take care of himself and make sure he gets everything in order. We don’t know how that’s going to turn out. But we’re supporting him.”

I wasn’t sure then whether this cocaine news would factor into our story. How was it relevant to Chipotle’s food-safety crisis beyond the scandalous-sounding headlines and implications of guilt by association? During the course of my reporting, I even heard rumors that another journalist was digging into a supposed “party culture at Chipotle.” But this didn’t strike me as a systemic issue, based on my research. Ells, a foodie who is prone to listing off recipe ingredients like he works for, seems more likely to want to inhale truffle salt. And as one source who has worked closely with Ells and Crumpacker for years tells me, “Listen, I was once employed at a company where there was basically free-flowing cocaine in the bathroom, but in all my years working at Chipotle, I never ever ever ever ever [saw anything like that]. I have never witnessed Mark do anything [cocaine related], and I have been one of his closest friends [for decades]. It came as much of a surprise to me as I think it did for everybody else.”

Whatever the case, Chipotle brought Crumpacker back in early September. “We’ve learned that any mistake Mark may have made in his personal life was not related to, nor did affect, his work,” the company said in a statement. “The recent months have been personally challenging for Mark, but he has remained committed to doing what is best for Chipotle.”

When I catch up with Crumpacker by phone on September 21, he’s hesitant to talk too much about what happened. As a marketing guru, he’s perhaps also wary of the optics of the situation, not least given his executive status. If a Chipotle crew member was indicted for cocaine, would the company show him or her the same sympathy? “I’ve been [working at Chipotle] for eight and a half years,” Crumpacker says, when I ask about his reinstatement. “This team knows what I’ve done and what I’m capable of doing and my commitment. That afforded me the luxury to stay here. When I think if I had had a shorter tenure . . . I don’t know.”

He tells me it’s been a painful period and speaks regretfully of how it unfolded in the media. “Obviously having something so incredibly personal made so public is not something anybody would want, but I’m a particularly quiet, private person,” he says. What mattered most to him during this time was the support of his friends and colleagues, most notably Ells and Moran, whose loyalty didn’t fade, he adds.

Crumpacker recognizes that his legal woes came at an especially sensitive moment for the company, at the same time it introduced Chiptopia and A Love Story to refashion faith and trust with its consumers. But he says Chipotle’s leadership ultimately decided the calculus made sense to keep him on the payroll. “[Steve and Monty] were convinced from the beginning that while there might’ve been some short-term gain from me maybe stepping aside, they also said, ‘Look, in the long run, you’ve got so much to offer. Why would we take the short-term gain over the long term?’” Crumpacker recalls. “Our board of directors was equally supportive. I know it’s not the easiest choice they made.”

“Again,” he continues. “I just keep using the word ‘lucky.’”

Crumpacker is due in court October 18.

related video: From Crises to Commercials

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