The Fall of Chipotle

Down for the count?


“How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle! O [Chipotle], thou wast slain in thine high places.”

Okay. So, I certainly don’t intend for this post to be a lamentation or an elegy for a lost friend. In fact, I’m not even going to express woe of any kind. Rather, I intend to express something approaching the opposite for the company that reeks of self-righteousness. Let’s not call my expressions those of joy, eh?

I’ll start with the chipotle pepper. Basically, it’s just a jalapeño. Just ripened, red jalapeños that are dehydrated and smoked (which further dehydrates them) for several hours to several days. Of the two main types of chipotles, moritas and mecos, the former is the most commonly used in the United States. Moritas are produced primarily in the state of Chihuahua, located in the northern portion of Mexico which shares a border with New Mexico and Texas. Thus, it is no surprise that chipotles found their way into the United States. However, it has become inescapable. Rife in many Mexican derived cuisines (e.g. Mexican-American and Tex-Mex), the chipotle pepper has even found itself weaved into some unlikely (and ostensibly sacrilegious) edible forms. Who thought chipotle cookies were a good idea?

Don’t get me wrong. Chipotles are delicious with a pleasantly distinct flavor—think on all those fancy superlatives used on the Food Network to describe a food’s taste—and the dishes that incorporate them are fantastic if not superb. Yet, I feel that the United States has become substantially heavy-handed when it comes to this versatile ingredient.

Chipotle, the restaurant (Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.) and chipotle pepper monger, is perhaps the most successful business within the “fast casual” food category. Alas, the restaurant chain has recently been beset by a barrage of negative reviews following several food contamination scandals; there has also been a commensurate dip (that’s stating it mildly) in stock prices. Norovirus, salmonella, and E. coli are bad news bears for business. The ignominy of being the responsible food purveyor with food contamination scandals is made worse by:

  1. A loss in the courtroom: a jury found Chipotle culpable for discrimination against a pregnant woman, and she was awarded $550,000 in punitive and compensatory damages.
  2. The arrest of Chipotle’s chief creative and development officer: Mark Crumpacker (an interesting surname) was charged with misdemeanor cocaine possession.

Chipotle is taking quite a beating.

The United States has become substantially heavy-handed when it comes to this versatile ingredient.

It’s rather unfortunate that the company which takes pride in the responsible procurement of ingredients could be beleaguered by a contaminated supply chain. This also comes from a company whose founder and co-CEO, Steve Ells, is obsessively preoccupied with the protection Chipotle’s image. Admittedly, Chipotle can’t be blamed for everything that occurs from harvest to burrito.

I don’t mean to do Chipotle a complete disservice by highlighting all that is wrong with the company. (Or maybe I do.) Chipotle has undoubtedly changed the food service game. The company often acquires its produce from local farmers. Additionally, whenever possible, Chipotle sources its meat from humane livestock operations that emphasizes natural feeds, animal happiness, adequately-spaced living environments, and a renunciation of antibiotics and synthetic hormones. My unsolicited advice when it comes to animal slaughter: don’t be an asshole and dispatch the animal(s) as quickly and humanely as possible. I can understand that it’s somewhat oxymoronic to mention slaughter and humane in the same sentence, but that’s most likely attributable to the poverty of our language. Perhaps there is no such thing as humane slaughter. Nevertheless, if minimizing suffering is our goal, then I suppose my former statement can stand on somewhat tenable ground.

The following excerpt is a more concise and admirable précis of what I have been talking about:

Chipotle built its reputation with its reliance on fresh, often locally sourced, ingredients. That approach has always been a major branding advantage for the company, but it also makes the task of insuring food safety far more complex, since it means Chipotle has to deal with many different local suppliers, rather than just a few big ones. And this problem has only become more acute as Chipotle has expanded. The company has also always trumpeted the fact that it prepared meals by hand, right in front of the customer. This distinguished it from traditional fast-food chains, with their flash-frozen ingredients assembled and heated up in a kitchen in back. In the wake of the outbreaks, though, the sheer visibility of the food-preparation process could make it hard for customers not to wonder about what the person building their burrito might be transmitting. Even Chipotle’s slogan—”food with integrity”—sounds painfully ironic when people are getting food poisoning at its restaurants.

I am not sad at the possible departure of Chipotle from the food industry. I am certain, however, that some will find that “’tis right to grieve.” Few wish to see their beloved food establishments become memories. Conceivably, Chipotle could recover from these calamitous events and reclaim its place atop the pecking order. However, anyone who has experienced foodborne illnesses will know why it may be difficult to return to a once-trusted establishment. Ask me why I will never eat Quizno’s and I will swiftly reply: gastroenteritis. That agonizing experience isn’t even distressingly recent and I am still paralyzed with fear when I see the company logo. Furthermore, the same characteristics that Chipotle considers a boon and are its major selling points—the procurement of locally sourced ingredients—have made it difficult to trace where the contaminations occurred and where contaminated food had been shipped. C’est acceptable? I think not.

My advice: don’t be an asshole and dispatch the animal(s) as quickly and humanely as possible.

I say: out with Chipotle. The United States could do well with fewer chipotles, the peppers to be enjoyed in moderation just like everything else. As some iterations of the old adage go: too much of a good thing can be bad.

2 comments on “The Fall of Chipotle”

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