What do we talk about when we talk about Chipotle? Are we talking about the pop culture phenomenon? The restaurant that has Jonathan Franzen, Aziz Ansari and Jonathan Safran Foer writing quirky novellas on the sides of paper bags? The one that has the POTUS reaching over sneeze-guards, Tinderellas offering lascivious bargains in exchange for burritos, and guacamole that’s replaced a fridge full of Vitamin Water as the symbolic foodstuff of unimaginable wealth?
Or are we talking about Chipotle the business phenomenon? The restaurant that quietly created the entire concept of ‘fast casual’ and then systematically monopolized it? The one bending fast food conglomerates over their knee and spanking them with quarterly growth soaggressive that burger oligarchs haven’t sat comfortably since 1993?
Or are we talking about Chipotle, the ideology chain that also serves burritos? The Mexican restaurant that calls tofu sofrito and swung a product recall into a PR campaign? The restaurant that uses scarecrows in disturbing digital shorts, and vocally opposes GMOs, synthetic hormones, soil pollution and a laundry list of other environmental offenses?
Technically, we’re talking about all three. Since its inception, Chipotle has evaded traditional pigeonholes: It is at once a cultural phenomenon, business phenomenon, ideological phenomenon and burrito restaurant. It is complex, mystifyingly and frustratingly so. And it just so happens that Chipotle and I have a very complicated history.
It started as a love story.
As soon as I turned sixteen, I went to the nearest Chipotle and applied for a job. Crushingly, they rejected my application, saying I had to be eighteen to handle the alcohol (you’re telling me!). As often happens, my thwarted love turned into unrequited love which turned into passionate love.
I became Chipotle’s unappointed apostle, spreading the good news of the company that managed to both do good and be good. They held themselves to stringent sourcing and ethical standards, but still made the best pound-for-pound burrito in town.
As a senior in high school, I gave a ten-minute persuasive speech on Chipotle’s merits, laying out its objective superiority to its competitors, based both on culinary and ethical criteria. Chipotle donated burritos to the presentation.
Then I went to college. I fell deeply in love with the organic food movement, drinking Michael Pollan’s locally-sourced Kool-Aid, making wishes as I rubbed Mark Bittman’s bald head and keeping a rabbit foot from a humanely raised and respectfully slaughtered hare in my burlap back pocket. In other words, I generally became a huge prick about food.
I wondered why every restaurant couldn’t be a Chipotle, every grocery store a Whole Foods, every farmer a Joel Salatin, every chef an Alice Waters, and every man, woman and child an educated, ethical eater.
I chastised my parents for buying eggs from Guantanamo chickens and tomatoes that had to be at least 80 percent pesticide. My mom rolled her eyes even as she paid for the groceries. I watched Food Inc., co-founded a community garden, flirted with veganism and somewhere in my sophomore year, reached peak douche.
All the while though, semester after semester of philosophical relativism and ideological elbow rubbing had finally worn down my zealotry. Gradually, I began to realize that things rarely operated in absolutes. Slowly, slowly, slowly, I began to see shades of gray where I used to see black and white. Over time, this enlightened skepticism made its way toward my long held convictions about food.
Maybe, I wondered, savoring the scandalous pleasure of my apostasy, just maybe, Monsanto wasn’t pure evil. Maybe Satisfries were a step in the right direction and maybe some people should eat margarine.
Maybe all the anti-establishment, rooftop-farmer pamphlets I’d been bookmarking my raw cookbooks with were giving me a one-sided perspective. Maybe somebody needed to tell Big Ag’s side of the story, or McDonalds’, or GMO’s or milk’s. Don’t they deserve their academic apologists, their habeas corpus? The current food system is the current food system for a reason—nobody strong-armed America into dogpiling bacon-stuffed pizza crust, Fourth Meal and Shaq Soda onto their diets. So who exactly is to blame?
With ‘Consider the Source’ tattooed on my knuckles, I began my 80-page senior thesis defending processed food. Ironically, throughout college and while writing my magnum opus, I worked as a cook at a farm-to-table restaurant.
The topic of my thesis was such heresy, such blatant sacrilege, that I had to lie to my coworkers about it. I felt like a lame undercover spy, praising local pea shoots by day, exposing their environmental hypocrisy by night.
My thesis, “Mastering the Art of Food Processing: An Appeal for the Destigmatization of Processed Food,” produced the expected results. Aghast audience members nearly rioted during the Q&A session following my presentation, demanding I name my corporate backers or be drawn and quartered.
When an audience member, with the confidence of a chess master announcing checkmate, declared that surely You Are What You Eat, the air went out of the room. How could I counter such definitive, empirical evidence?
“Well,” I said, “I actually chose another quote from Anthelme Brillat-Savarin [the man who said that] for the dedication page of my thesis. Savarin said that ‘The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star.’ So I kind of think he’d be in my corner.”
Witness protection quickly ushered me out of the room, shielding me from the non-GMO tomatoes being viciously hurled at me, and three years later I write to you from a remote cave hidden deep in the Shoshone Mountains.
It was at this time that I began the current chapter in my relationship with Chipotle.
I was saddened.
I saw Chipotle as John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” schizophrenically tacking coded newspapers to the walls of a shack behind his house—a brilliant, gifted man frittering away his time and talent in pursuit of an illusory, misguided goal.
Now fundamentally, I’m not saying that Chipotle is not an amazing restaurant. Everything there always tastes great. Their meats are succulent and aromatic, grilled veggies giving and sweet, salsas warm and deep. Their guacamole, to paraphrase writer Rowan Jacobsen, tastes like a Werner Herzog film.
Make no mistake, Chipotle’s food alone would’ve made the restaurant a success. In fact, if I may be so bold, I would respectfully submit that many fans of Chipotle go—and now I know I’m out of line—they go maybe, just maybe, because the food is good, not because they only eat organic, non-GMO fare and finally found a burrito place that matches their rigorous ethical standards.
Of course, Chipotle knows this. They know that most people eat there because the food is good. They know their average consumer has, at best, a middling interest in saving the world from Michael Taylor.
But using the ancient Japanese art of marketing karate, they’ve mastered the ability of turning the force of their opponents’ attacks against them. By using this karate, any critique of Chipotle’s commitment to the environment, instead of being rebutted, is welcomed as fuel for their martyrdom-image engine. Yes, they don’t have to serve organic food, but they’re just so darned committed to their ideals that they do it even though it’s more work.
According to their website, Chipotle aims to be a place “where people who choose to avoid GMOs can still enjoy eating.” This is good. But what about people like me, my family, friends and everyone I’ve unofficially polled, who don’t go to Chipotle to cast a vote? What about the people who feel like the issue may be greyer than right and wrong, the people who ordered one burrito hold the politics?
The easiest solution would be to eat burritos elsewhere, like Cabo Bob’s or Freebirds, restaurants that make delicious food free of moral surcharge. But that evades the point.
The point is that Chipotle forces a complex issue—how we feed ourselves—into an ideological procrustean bed, boxing it up neatly for the sake of simplicity and squeaky clean brand image.
The truth is that very few concepts are completely black and white, and modern agriculture is certainly not one of them. As such, all parties involved in the discussion must observe a necessary pourparler: That the first step to improving the food system is simply avoiding the temptation to oversimplify the dialogue surrounding it into false, digestible binaries. (Read that sentence twice, please.)
Unless of course, the fuzzy warmth of moral righteousness is just as important to Chipotle’s bottom line as their burritos are. If that were the case, then they couldn’t simply remove unwanted pesticides and GMOs, they’d have to make sure everyone knows they’re removing them, hears them blowing their trumpets in the street.
They’d have to do things like produce videos that pat themselves on the back, throw hip music festivals that flash their benevolence in neon lights, and explain to anyone with ears how exactly they stopped serving a menu item because it didn’t meet their standards.
Which, coincidentally enough, is exactly what I saw when I approached Chipotle with two friends on a warm night in October. Carnitas was back, the sign said. Before I’d even stepped foot inside, I was informed that they’d been able to find a new supplier that meets their famously high demands (if you didn’t remember, that’s why they suspended it in the first place).
I’m not going to review Chipotle’s food—we both know it’s delicious. You’re not going to stop eating there and neither am I (unless I’m banned after this), but next time you do, remember one thing.
Don’t let your love for burritos politicize you without your consent. Learn both sides of the story. (You do that with everything else, why not food?) Understand that agriculture is a complicated issue, and complicated issues are rarely black and white. I’m happy that Chipotle starts the conversation, but let’s not muck that dialogue up by watering it down it. Let them make your burritos; you make your opinions.