Chipotle co-CEO steps down as chain struggles to recover from sales slump

Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moran has stepped down from his role effective immediately. Founder Steve Ells is now the company's sole chief executive, Chipotle said Monday.

"Given the ongoing challenges facing the company, the board felt strongly that it was best for Steve to resume leadership of the company going forward," Neil Flanzraich, lead director of Chipotle's board, said in a statement.

Ells said Chipotle's operations have become "over-complicated" and that the company needs to "act with a sense of urgency toward all of the changes we are pursuing" in the wake of an E. coli outbreak that has sent sales plunging.

Customers have been slow to return to Chipotle in the wake of the outbreak, which started late last year.

PHOTOS: Chipotle restaurants through the years:

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Chipotle restaurants through the years
DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 9: Steve Ells, 32, owner of the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain, in front of one of his stores at 32nd & Lowell Blvd. in Denver, Colorado on Monday, Feb. 9, 1998. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Exterior of the Chipotle restaurant on Wisconsin Ave. NW Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
GLENVIEW, IL - DECEMBER 02: Activity is seen near the order-counter area inside a Chipotle restaurant December 2, 2005 in Glenview, Illinois. McDonald's Corp., owners of 92 percent of Chipotle, are preparing its Mexican-style eateries for an initial public offering. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
CHICAGO - JANUARY 26: The Chipoltle Mexican Grill logo is painted on the door of one of the Chain's restaurants in the trendy Bucktown neighborhood January 26, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. McDonald's spin-off of the restaurant chain ended the day with the Initial Public Offering (IPO) closing at $44, double its opening price. It was the best opening day gain by a U.S.-based IPO in more than five years. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 26: Workers prepares meals at Chipotle Mexican Grill in West Bloomfield, Michigan on Thursday, January 26, 2006. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.'s shares more than doubled on the first day of trading after McDonald's Corp. took the fast-growing chain public. (Photo by Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - JANUARY 26: The original Chipotle restaurant at 1644 E. Evans Ave in Denver, shown here on Jauary 26, 2006. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
A Chipotle burrito in it's signature aluminum wrap on Friday, February 12, 2010. Burrito was that the original location on E. Evans Ave. Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post (Photo By Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Chipotle burritos at the original location on E. Evans Ave. Bryan Sawyer who eats about 3 times a week at the Chipotle eats a steak black bean burrito on Friday, February 12, 2010. Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post (Photo By Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: -- Kyle Braley stirs a tomatillo green chili salsa at Chipotle Mexican Grill in South Portland on Monday, December 13, 2010. The popular restaurant chain, which serves naturally-raised beef, chicken and pork, has its grand opening today. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks into a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. location in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Chipotle, the best- performing restaurant stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index last year, is expected to release earnings data on Oct. 18. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. logo is displayed on a paper bag at a location in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Chipotle, the best- performing restaurant stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index last year, is expected to release earnings data on Oct. 18. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. employees prepare food at a location in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Chipotle, the best- performing restaurant stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index last year, is expected to release earnings data on Oct. 18. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A steak burrito is arranged for a photograph with a drink and bags of chips at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant in Hollywood, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is scheduled to release earnings data on July 18. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A employee sprinkles cheese on a burrito at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant in Hollywood, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is scheduled to release earnings data on July 18. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Employees prepare lunch orders at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant at Madison Square Park in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is expected to release earnings figures on Jan. 30. Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Employees prepare lunch orders at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant at Madison Square Park in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is expected to release earnings figures on Jan. 30. Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MIAMI, FL - MARCH 05: A Chipotle restaurant is seen on March 5, 2014 in Miami, Florida. The Mexican fast food chain is reported to have tossed around the idea that it would temporarily suspend sales of guacamole due to an increase in food costs. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A Chipotle eatery in the Financial District of Manhattan NYC viewed from the outside looking in shows the interior design as well as people eating & talking, & also reflects the urban building from across the street in the upper left corner of the window
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2015/10/18: Restaurants in USA: Chipotle Mexican Grill Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. is a chain of restaurants in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France, specializing in Mission burritos and tacos. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- FEBRUARY 8: A sign sits in the window of a Chipotle restaurant on Broadway in Lower Manhattan telling customers the restaurant is closed until 3 p.m. on February 8, 2016 in New York City. The Mexican food chain is closing stores for lunch nationwide for a meeting on food safety following a number of E. coli outbreaks. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
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As a result, Chipotle management is suddenly getting nervous about meeting the 2017 guidance that it issued in October, Ells said last week.

Chipotle had said in October that it was expecting same-store sales growth in the high single digits next year — so anywhere from 6% to 9%.

In the most recent quarter, Chipotle's same-store sales dropped 21.9%.

Here's a news release on the management changes:

Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG) announced that its Board of Directors has named company Founder Steve Ells the company's sole Chief Executive Officer. Ells will also remain Chairman of Chipotle's board. Monty Moran has stepped down from the co-CEO role and from his board seat effective immediately, and will retire from Chipotle in 2017.

"Steve founded Chipotle more than 23 years ago with a powerful vision to use great ingredients prepared skillfully by hand, but served very fast," said Neil Flanzraich, Lead Director of Chipotle's board. "This approach has proven to be a very successful formula, but as the company grew, operations became more complicated and less consistent. Given the ongoing challenges facing the company, the board felt strongly that it was best for Steve to resume leadership of the company going forward. This will ensure that his high standards for the guest experience and his unyielding commitment to the company's mission are top priorities."

Ells, a classically trained chef, started Chipotle in 1993 with a small loan from his father. Chipotle has since grown into one of the nation's largest restaurant companies, with more than 2,200 locations in five countries. Ells served as Chairman and CEO from 1993 until 2009 when he became co-CEO, a title he shared with Moran. The company went public in 2006. As Chairman and CEO, Ells will directly oversee restaurant operations, strategic initiatives, and innovation projects at the company.

"Chipotle is based on a very simple idea: We start with great ingredients, prepare them using classic cooking techniques, and serve them in a way that allows people to get exactly what they want," said Ells. "Even though it's a simple idea, operations have become over-complicated. I'm very much looking forward to relentlessly focusing on ensuring an excellent guest experience, removing unnecessary complexity from our operations, championing innovation, and pursuing our mission of making better food accessible to more people."

Ells also indicated that he will pursue employee incentives that are more closely tied to the guest experience. Chipotle now pays its starting employees above the federal minimum wage and provides benefits including paid vacation time, paid sick leave, and tuition reimbursement to all employees. The company also provides stock to its General Managers upon achieving Restaurateur status. The Restaurateur program, which recognizes the company's elite restaurant managers and provides a pipeline for its future leaders, is a cornerstone of Chipotle's field operations. In recent years, however, achieving Restaurateur status has become increasingly complex and Ells is committed to re-envisioning the program by placing an emphasis on the guest experience and making the path to Restaurateur more intuitive and accessible to more General Managers.

"It's incredibly important to me that we create an excellent dining experience in all of our restaurants. That starts with having great restaurant teams. To that end, I will evolve our Restaurateur program to ensure that even more of our best employees succeed and thrive at the company," Ells said. "While our plans will take some time to implement, we will act with a sense of urgency toward all of the changes we are pursuing."

Ells also recommitted to the company's quest to serve better ingredients, announcing a reimagined company mission. The new company mission to "Ensure that better food, prepared from whole, unprocessed ingredients is accessible to everyone" is the next step in the evolution of Chipotle's mission-driven business. Chipotle's previous mission was to "Change the way people think about and eat fast food."

Ell's commitment to expanding the company's mission can be seen at http://www.chipotle.com/ mission.

"When I started Chipotle, I knew very little about the way food was raised," Ells said. "But over the years, I've become a champion for ingredients that are raised with respect for people, animals, and the environment. I will also continue to advocate for food made simply, without processed ingredients, which is the kind of food I believe should be available to everyone. I'm incredibly proud of the team at Chipotle and I'm thankful to them for helping us realize our mission of bringing better food to more and more people."

"I'd also like to thank Monty for his extraordinary contributions to Chipotle over the years. Monty inspired us with his vision for an enlightened people culture, and I wish him the best as he retires from the company," Ells said.

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