Chipotle And Food Smugness

Total transparency here – I was duped too.

I so sorely wanted to believe Chipotle was something other than a fast food restaurant. I wanted to believe a company founded with capitol generated by McDonald’s wasn’t bullshitting me when they claimed their food had “integrity.”

This article from Bloomberg does a pretty thorough job of ripping the veil from our eyes though.

Here’s my spin – the problem isn’t that Chipotle was preparing the majority of its food on-site in their kitchens. Tens of thousands of restaurants do this every day without making anyone sick. And it was that they were trying to locally source and organically source their ingredients either, although doing so does mean their produce is a lot more likely to have come in contact with manure, which means it’s a lot more likely to be contaminated when it arrives on site.

The problem is staffing.

The reason Chipotle’s cooks might be more likely to serve you E Coli or norovirus contaminated food is because they’re utterly uninvested in the food. When you walk into your local tacqueria you can be pretty sure the guy back there in the kitchen, sweating his face off for your meal, is the boss in that kitchen. He might be a hired hand, but he’s the one hired hand they’ve got. And if he’s not a hired hand the restaurant is probably his, or his dad’s, or his mom’s or his sister’s.

The line cook at Chipotle washes his hands and keeps his prep station clean because he’s told to. The guy at the local taco bar washes his hands and keeps his prep station clean because of pride and ownership. The worst thing that happens to a Chipotle line cook if he doesn’t follow the food safety rules is he gets fired. That guy at the local taco stand could cost his mom and pop their business, and lose the respect of his family.

Beyond that, family owned, small-town, local restaurants are full of people who give a shit about whether or not the food is good. If someone gets sick they failed because people who open restaurants do it because they love food. They love to feed people. Someone becomes a line cook at a Chipotle for the same reason someone becomes a driver for FedX or a cashier at Wendy’s. It’s a job.

Fast food joints like McDonald’s or Taco Bell take the guess work and risk out of their food because their business model isn’t built on feeding people or anyone loving working there. It’s built on consistency and reliability. Chipotle grabbed the business model and then tried to alter the formula as a marketing tactic. They followed the same game plan used by Starbucks. The difference is that Starbucks serves coffee. Mediocre, overpriced, coffee. The worst thing a Starbucks Barista can do to you is spell your name wrong.

Chipotle tried to pretend you can make real food in a fast food restaurant. The problem with this idea is creating and cooking real food takes love. When you’re tired, your feet hurt, your arms and hands are covered in scars from cuts and burns and there’s a line out the door of people who want their food NOW, an underpaid grunt who doesn’t love feeding people is going to skip steps, and when the food he’s handling was fertilized with shit instead of sterile chemicals, skipping steps might kill someone.

One Response to “Chipotle And Food Smugness

  • So, this post stirred up a holy hell of a shitstorm on social media and the criticism I got made me realize I’d done a bit of sloppy writing here.

    For the record, I do not blame the workers at Chipotle for making people sick. I blame the fast food business model the management of the company has adopted.

    This was not meant as a knock on people who work at fast food restaurants, but rather on the premise that you can alter that model and still serve safe food consistently. It was also meant to criticize the deceptive marketing Chipotle has engaged in that relies of duping consumers into thinking locally sourced, non-GMO, organic fast food is any less fast food than centrally packed and processed fast food is.

    When I say “staffing is the problem” that’s not a critique of the motives of the workers. It’s a critique of the system that creates relatively low-paying jobs in order to move maximum numbers of units.

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