(Bloomberg) -- Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. told its employees last week not to include chicken in their own meals, as surging customer demand crimped supply — but the chain now says its workers can go back to ordering freely.

The reintroduction of chicken al pastor has been a huge success, creating challenges, the company told US employees in an email last week. 

“Due to its sustained strong sales we need your help to keep up with our guests’ demand for this popular protein option,” according to the message from Chief Restaurant Officer Scott Boatwright, which was viewed by Bloomberg News. 

Store managers were told not to order their free or discounted employee meals with chicken or chicken al pastor, and to ask their team members to do the same. The email also instructed white-collar staff at Chipotle offices that they “should not” order chicken for themselves and said the popular option wouldn’t be included in their free Monday lunches.

The message, bearing the subject line “Let’s Conserve Our Fan-Favorite Chicken,” said the changes were effective immediately and would last until further notice. The goal is to “preserve our supply of Adobo Chicken for our guests,” it read.

Situation Resolved

In an emailed statement late Wednesday, Chipotle said the message was a request and not a mandate, and said it expected a resolution within a week. In a later statement Thursday afternoon, after Bloomberg News reported on the issue, the company said it had given employees the all-clear.

“Due to the high demand for chicken in our restaurants and sustained success of our chicken al pastor, last week we asked all our corporate and in-restaurant employees to temporarily select another protein option for their meals to preserve our supply,” Chief Corporate Affairs and Food Safety Officer Laurie Schalow said. “We’ve since informed employees they can return to ordering chicken in their meals as normal.”

In an interview with Bloomberg TV on Thursday, Chief Executive Officer Brian Niccol said the company experienced a temporary chicken crunch.

“The supply got really tight. We asked all our employees, including myself, to pitch in for a week, to maybe try something else on our menu,” Niccol said. “The good news is, we’re through that pinch. There’s no challenges on our chicken supply.”

Chipotle’s chicken directive roiled some workers. 

“It’s disrespectful, just on a personal level,” said Harper McNamara, an employee in Michigan at the company’s only unionized US store. 

Managers threatened to discipline workers who got chicken during their lunch breaks, and in some cases have thrown out chicken meals made for them, employees there said. In some cases it’s the only meat workers can eat, for reasons including health and religion, they said.

Chipotle put managers in an unfair position by requiring them to enforce the new policy, said Atulya Dora-Laskey, who like McNamara is a member of the bargaining committee at the Lansing, Michigan, store. The abrupt chicken change, even if temporary, illustrates the need for a union contract that secures workers’ benefits, she said Wednesday.

“It really has Chipotle employees wondering, if it’s chicken today, is it going to be, ‘Oh, we have a drinks shortage, you can’t get drinks’ tomorrow?” Dora-Laskey said.

Workers at the store voted to unionize with the Teamsters in August 2022, but haven’t yet reached a collective bargaining agreement with the company. The two sides remain far apart on some issues, including minimum staffing for the store, they said.

Marketing Success

The company highlighted chicken al pastor Wednesday as one of its “successful marketing initiatives,” along with braised beef barbacoa, that helped fuel a 7% first quarter increase in comparable restaurant sales over last year. 

Read More: Chipotle Raises Full-Year Outlook on Strong Burrito Demand

“Obviously, we love what chicken al pastor does for us,” Niccol said on the company’s earnings call.

In last week’s email, Boatwright suggested employees “see this as an opportunity to enjoy our other real, delicious protein options, such as steak or carnitas.”

--With assistance from Daniela Sirtori and Sonali Basak.

(Updates with CEO comments starting in ninth paragraph. An earlier version was corrected to remove stray language at the top of the story.)

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