The Chipotle State of the Union

Twenty years in, Chipotle is still as enigmatic as ever. Is it a game-changer? Is it a propaganda machine? Do quesaritos actually exist? We take a look back at the chain's first two decades to find some answers.

stateofunion

Since it first set up shop in Denver 20 years ago, Chipotle has become something of a paradox. The Burrito Chain That Could is a multinational behemoth with an emphasis on sustainable ingredients; an anti-corporate corporation that got its seed money from McDonald’s; and a “healthy option” that sells gut bombs with calorie counts in the quadruple digits. Now that it’s almost old enough to buy a drink, Chipotle’s taking its schtick to the next level with a full-blown miniseries, Farmed and Dangerous. Leland Palmer’s in it, sans demon possession.

So, how did Chipotle get to be this way? And where’s it going from here?

The restaurant chain’s idiosyncrasies go back to its founding. Steve Ells is a sort of reverse Ray Kroc; he’s a chef who stumbled into business, not a businessman who stumbled into food. Chipotle began as a fundraiser for a fine-dining restaurant that never happened, which explains a lot about its future emphasis on de-industrialization over dollar menus.

With just seven years and $350 million of Big Mac money, Chipotle went from 16 regional locations to 500 national ones.

That’s when McDonald’s came in. To get where it is today, Chipotle had to take on what it politely refers to on its website as “outside investors”: the largest fast-food chain in the world. With just seven years and $350 million of Big Mac money, Chipotle went from 16 regional locations to 500 national ones. Keeping its inexpensive plywood-and-pipe look, a restaurant that committed to naturally raised chicken in 2002 was at one point majority-owned by the place that brought us McNuggets made out of mechanically separated chicken paste.

chipotle burrito The Chipotle State of the Union

20 years and still going strong

Of course, McDonald’s spun Chipotle off in 2006, possibly due to what Ells politely calls “very different cultures” in a Bloomberg TV documentary from last year (available on Netflix!). But for a while, it was almost impossible to get your super-sized burrito bowl on without hearing someone whisper: “Did you know this place is owned by McDonald’s?” There’s even a section on Chipotle’s website—filed under  “Food With Integrity Facts”—dedicated to clearing up the misconception McDonald’s is still involved. Ells is now openly critical of his former investor, dissing the McDonald’s burger as a “frozen puck” prepared “on a machine” in an interview last year.

Since then, Chipotle has committed to amping up its culinary bona fides. In 2010, it brought on Nate Appleman as “culinary manager,” who operated the Chelsea location as a sort of open test kitchen before cutting off New Yorkers’ supply of small-batch salsa and moving to a semi-secret location near Union Square. Hiring a James Beard Award-winning chef is, obviously, out of character for a fast-casual chain—imagine Christina Tosi heading up Panera—and it may not make most of a difference outside the tiny-but-mighty world of food geeks. Still, Appleman’s a real part of Chipotle’s process: The first addition to its menu since its opening—sofaritas, a tofu option now available in Boston and New York—is his brainchild.

Most recently, though, the chain’s taken a more aggressive turn in its evangelizing of the conscious fast-food gospel. Enter “Scarecrow,” the anti-factory farm clip that’s more short film than ad. Known for a Fiona Apple rendition of “Imagination” that makes sure we’ll never see Willy Wonka the same way again, the ad follows our hero as he quits his job at Crow Foods and starts his own farm/suspiciously familiar taco purveyor in the countryside. It’s stunningly beautiful, but more interestingly, it’s not even about Chipotle. Instead, it promotes a smartphone game that’s an extended version of the parable; Chipotle simply sponsors it.

 The Chipotle State of the Union

The Scarecrow video game

Then there’s Farmed and Dangerous, the four-part story of a Big Agro PR exec and the cow-exploding product he sells. Again, it’s not particularly subtle in its message, and again, that message takes precedent over anything more Chipotle-centric, like selling burritos. Made by the same ad agency that gave us “Scarecrow” and the similar, Willie Nelson-soundtracked clip “Back to the Start,” Farmed and Dangerous seems like an awfully big investment for a for-profit company to make, especially if it’s to promote ethical farming and not its own product.

It’s not that surprising, then, that there’s been rumblings of pushback against a company that can come off as a contradiction in terms. Headlines like “5 Things Chipotle Ads Don’t Tell You” and “Chipotle’s new Hulu series is just a very long and very expensive ad” took aim at the obvious self-interest Chipotle has in taking a swipe at its competitors’ practices. Accurate as its claims may be, customers are very much aware that Chipotle’s a restaurant, not a policy group.

It’s unclear whether Chipotle’s strategy translates into an industry-wide shift.

That’s not to say Chipotle doesn’t put its money where its mouth is. Even Mother Jones conceded that “you’re far better off going to Chipotle than McDonald’s,” and over the years the chain has made real commitments to getting rid of trans fats, conventionally raised meat, and most recently, GMOs. But 20 years in, Chipotle walks the fine line of being the best-established platform for anti-establishment views in the business.

In its two decades in business, Chipotle’s carved out an utterly unique, ever-expanding niche for itself. By being a massive advocate for small-scale producers, it’s forced even competitors like Taco Bell to at least pay lip service to the idea of fresh and/or sustainable ingredients. Still, even though it’s expanding its model into pan-Asian (Shophouse) and even pizza (Pizzeria Locale), it’s unclear whether Chipotle’s strategy translates into an industry-wide shift. After all, Ells’s path from chef to CEO was something of a fluke; there’s no guarantee more profit-minded peers will choose to adopt his approach and not just his genius marketing.

For now, the demand for quesaritos with extra guac shows no signs of slowing.

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