Chipotle joins the Crumbs Brigade -- but why?

Should we look a gift horse in the mouth? For the most part, the Crumbs Brigade of employers sharing the benefits of the tax reform package passed in December has been nothing but good news for Republicans, and a disaster for Democrats. Companies like Apple, ExxonMobil, and others have committed not just to boost the wallets of their employees but also to repatriate hundreds of billions of dollars for investment in the domestic economy. Democrats have scorned this as “crumbs,” but most Americans see the connection between tax policy and wage stagnation a lot clearer than ever.

But are all Crumbs Brigade enrollments entirely positive? Chipotle’s announcement certainly sounds wonderful, with an expansion not just of bonuses and wages, but also paid parental leave, better training, and more:

Qualified hourly employees and salaried restaurant employees will receive a special one-time cash bonus of up to $1,000, and some staff employees will receive a one-time stock grant.

Other offerings will include accelerated training programs, and additional paid parental leave for everyone, from hourly managers to salaried employees. …

According to the company, the tax cut and the jobs cut made the sweetened compensation and benefits possible. The company will invest more than one-third of its anticipated savings from tax law changes on behalf of its employees, and the remainder will be used to improve its restaurant facilities and operations.

Sounds great — and also expensive. What makes that curious is that at the same time Chipotle is sharing the wealth with its employees, it’s telling investors that the outlook this year is anything but sunny, tax savings or no. Analysts have downgraded Chipotle’s stock, which dropped more than 10% in early trading today:

Shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill shed more than 10 percent Wednesday as analysts foresee more trouble ahead for the burrito chain.

The burrito chain is on pace for its worst day since Oct. 25, following a number of stock downgrades and price cuts after the company posted fourth-quarter earnings that were only slightly better-than-expectations on Tuesday.

The company said that an increase in the average check helped bolster earnings despite slowing foot traffic. Chipotle said it expects traffic will continue to decline through the middle of the year.

With all of those pressures on stock and performance, wouldn’t the tax-savings money have been better used on corporate infrastructure? Chipotle is telling investors that they will need to spend $115 million dollars to upgrade its facilities alone to become more competitive in the upscale-fast-food marketplace. They’ve already raised prices to compensate for falling patronage, which makes that competition even more difficult.

So why spend the windfall up front? Perhaps a reminder of the core of Chipotle’s problems could explain it:

Chipotle has struggled to regain customer confidence since a series of food-borne illness outbreaks caused diners to flee the restaurant chain two years ago. On Tuesday, the company said it was aware of these issues and was making strides to revitalize its reputation.

We used to eat there quite a bit but haven’t gone back to Chipotle’s since those illnesses broke out in Minnesota locations at that time. (My wife is immune-suppressed because of her transplants, making food-borne illnesses a real threat to her life.) Perhaps all of the notoriety from the Crumbs Brigade offered Chipotle a chance to make headlines again for a better reason, and the investment in employees is mostly a public-relations move.

Even if that’s the motivation, it’s not illegitimate. It still benefits the employees, although they might arguably get better benefit in the long run if Chipotle focused its capital on fixing its problems. It still demonstrates the tangible benefits of the tax reform bill regardless of how Chipotle redirects those resources, so Republicans can still use it as an example of its success. Furthermore, it serves as a reminder that not all of those tax reform benefits will come in the form of direct compensation, but will also encompass other kinds of reinvestment that will benefit both employees and customers in the long run. And those aren’t crumbs, either, even if Chipotle may not have chosen the best trail of crumbs back to sustainable organizational health.