Photo: Chipotle/Facebook
Denver-based restaurant chain Chipotle became a model for the quick, counter-style food service now known as “fast casual,” inspiring thousands of imitators, many dubbed “the next Chipotle,” or “the Chipotle of” various styles of cuisine. (Photo: Chipotle/Facebook.)

After a long, happy life in the headlines, “the next Chipotle” (a.k.a. “the Chipotle of [insert any type of food here]”) quietly passed away last week. The cliché, a favorite of financial- and food-themed news outlets for quite some time, suffered from unsustainable high expectations.

For years, we, the food-obsessed media (including this very site), rushed to identify “the next Chipotle” and breathlessly chronicled its many incarnations. Anointed heir apparents to the hugely ballyhooed Denver-based burrito behemoth included everything from burger joints (Shake Shack, Little Big Burger) and salad spots (Sweetgreen, Tender Greens) to a “cramped New York City falafel shop.” Oddly, even traditional fast-food chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Pizza Hut occasionally carried the title. Last year, the Wall Street Journal noted that more than 40 different restaurants had been described as “the Chipotle of” their respective cuisines dating back to 2008.

To the many entities that embraced the idea and embodied it over time, “the next Chipotle” meant something special. The label implied a sense of quality, progressive values and the promise of great prosperity. Above all, it was intended as a compliment.

“The next Chipotle” was born amid the breakthrough success of its parent and corporate role model Chipotle. The “anti-McDonald’s,” as Bloomberg has described the company, broke from many time-tested conventions (no breakfast, no drive-thrus, no franchises) and successfully merged the timeless American necessity of fast, convenient service with modern sensibilities like fresh, made-to-order ingredients. It was, to use another cliché, a game-changer. And it was hugely successful for a very long time.

“The next Chipotle” — which Nation’s Restaurant News traces back to at least 2006 — was cast in a similar mold as its forebear and, likewise, anticipated amassing a similar vast empire and fortune. In its heyday, “the next Chipotle” effectively became the subject of a popular parlor game, which pretty much anyone, apparently including Chipotle itself, could play. The Huffington Post once mused that “Chipotle even thinks it knows what the next Chipotle is,” citing the company’s own Asian-themed spin-off, ShopHouse, and its investment in another similar counter-service-style chain, Pizzeria Locale.

Last October, however, “the next Chipotle” began to take on different meaning, as the original Chipotle became entangled in a hugely publicized food-borne-illness debacle, scaring off investors, attracting lawyers and drawing the scrutiny of federal investigators.

Amid this newfound shaky climate, “the next Chipotle” no longer functioned as a good descriptor of savvy entrepreneurship or forward-thinking food service. It worked merely as a punchline, or perhaps the scary title to some cautionary pamphlet on crisis management. As the contamination scandal dragged on, “the next Chipotle” slowly faded away.

In its final days, contemporaries spoke fondly of the declining cliché with a heavy of sense of nostalgia. As El Pollo Loco CEO Steve Sather told Yahoo! Finance, “There was a euphoric state where a lot of focus was on the fast casuals and really seeing who was going to be the next Chipotle at that time.”

“The next Chipotle” is survived by its beleaguered forebear and thousands of imitators.