Moe's Southwest Grill dethroned Chipotle as the most popular Mexican-inspired food brand, according to a new Harris Poll out this week. Analysts say this is yet another sign of lingering customer scrutiny for Chipotle as it slowly recovers from foodborne illness outbreaks.
Moe's, with less than half of the amount of franchises as Chipotle, was named "Brand of the Year" in Harris' fast-casual Mexican restaurant category. Meanwhile Chipotle, the former three-year title holder, did not make the top four. It ranked below Moe's, Taco Bell, Qdoba and Baja Fresh, according to the annual poll published Thursday.
The survey comes after E. coli outbreaks were investigated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service and public health officials in multiple states. The link to foodborne illnesses sent sales slumping and the stock down 44 percent since the first outbreak was reported in October.
Food quality is the heart of Chipotle's brand and identity, which analyst Nick Setyan, senior vice president of equity research at Wedbush Securities, says made the fast-casual chain especially vulnerable during the outbreak.
"I think they're probably more susceptible than any other restaurant out there to such a crisis," Setyan told CNBC's "Power Lunch" on Friday. "I do think there's probably a higher percentage of customers that aren't coming back on a permanent basis."