Sure is easy to find a reason to hate on Chipotle. Lately, every time they’ve made news, it’s been bad news.
They made their own bed, Chipotle did. They billed themselves as a place that served “food with integrity,” where you could eat a sustainable burrito while reading a Malcolm Gladwell quote on your cup of Coke. Okay, you’re asking for it when you quote Malcolm Gladwell, but I was in.
I was in because Chipotle was tackling one of the most important issues in the American food system: meat. Founder Steve Ells has demonstrated, from the 2000 launch of the “food with integrity” policy, a genuine concern for the lives of the animals that become Chipotle chicken, carnitas, and barbacoa. The chickens had to have more space than conventionally raised birds, the beef had to be grass-fed, and the pigs had to have either access to pasture or deep litter. None could have antibiotics.
None of this has ever been spelled out very specifically, and the brand has left itself a lot of wiggle room. (On its official website, Chipotle notes that “we set minimum space requirements for the animals producing the meat and dairy products that end up in our restaurants” — but naturally, does not provide detail as to what those minimums are.)
But at a time when just about no food chain was paying attention to animal welfare, Chipotle spotlit that issue. That priority won me over. Niman Ranch pork, which was raised according to significantly higher animal welfare standards than the rest of the industry, was on the menu, and I was in.
Turns out, a lot of people were in. In 1998, there were 16 Chipotles. Now, there are over 2,300. And, until The Troubles, Chipotle’s stock price increased commensurately. On the day of its 2006 IPO, it opened trading at $45. If you bought it then, and held onto it through mid-2015, you’d have seen your money multiply by a factor of 15.
The stock price wasn’t the only thing on the rise. If there were a chart for smugness, Chipotle would be off it. So smug, they were, that they believed could stake their reputation on integrity but have very few actual standards, or dis Big Ag in their marketing videos (we’ve all seen how their competitors inflate chickens in soulless factories, to the tune of Willie Nelson) despite serving Big Ag soda, Big Ag tortillas, meat and cheese from animals fed Big Ag feed, and any other Big Ag product they need to fill in the cracks left by the wiggle room in those standards.
Maybe astonishing success makes you smug (I wouldn’t know), but the chain’s holier-than-thou quotient was a big part of what unleashed the schadenfreudefest when The Troubles began.
If you had to pick a date for that beginning, it would be February 2015, when the New York Times analyzed a passel of online Chipotle orders and figured out that the average burrito was over 1,000 calories, with enough sodium to salt the tears of all the investors who were to see, in just a few short months, the stock price nosedive. The media made hay with that study, and the nyah-nyah quality of some of the coverage, looking for the integrity in a waistline-busting, hypertension-boosting lunch, foreshadowed what was to come.
GMOs were next. In April 2015, the company announced that they were GMO-free, a commitment they’d made in 2013. Ells called the move “part of our food-with-integrity journey.”
In the fine print, though, the chain specified that some menu items — aka all those Big Ag products — were exempt from the no-GMOs policy. Sure, guacamole and salsa, which couldn’t be GMO if they tried, would be GMO-free, but the products that would actually present a challenge would stay GMO, thank you very much. In fact, the only ingredients Chipotle would actually have to change were vegetable oil (for cooking) and corn (for chips and tortillas). If we were to play word-association about a policy that changes what’s easy to change and ignores what’s hard to change, “integrity” might not be a game-winner.
It didn’t go over very well. While some anti-GMO groups applauded, the mainstream media pounced. Grist’s Nathanael Johnson collated the reactions: The move was universally panned. The Washington Post editorial board called it a “gimmick” that was “hard to swallow.” A Los Angeles Times op-ed deemed it “junk science.” The Bloomberg headline was, simply, “Chipotle Bans Credibility.”
If we try to catalog those sins charitably, here’s what they amount to: Chipotle’s menu allows you to build an unhealthy burrito, should you so choose; they removed GMOs from only a few of they products; they don’t have specific animal welfare standards. As chain-restaurant rap sheets go, that’s actually pretty good. What gave rise to the schadenfreude wasn’t so much the sins, but that pesky integrity thing. Use that word, and you’re asking to be held to a higher standard. Consumers were happy to oblige.
But all those problems were minor annoyances compared to the ton of bricks that came down when people got sick. Starting in the summer of 2015, hundreds of Chipotle patrons were waylaid with E. coli, salmonella, or norovirus. This was yet another variation on the theme. Although the culprits were never specifically identified, Chipotle’s policy of trying to source fresh foods locally, and preparing them at each store, introduced all kinds of ways for pathogens to find their way into the food. Was public health being sacrificed because the company was pandering to consumers ready to menuflect at the altar of local and fresh?
Diners fled. Same-store sales dropped, and then dropped some more. Some customers even sued, alleging mismanagement in various guises. Investors fled. The stock price retreated from its high of almost $750, and traded at half that just over a year later.
When all this hit, I will admit to schadenfreude of my own. I care about food’s provenance, and I did not feel Chipotle’s pain as they paid the price for the disconnect between their message and their actual practices. Malcolm Gladwell cups just won’t fight E. coli.
But, after a tut-tut and a heh-heh, I decided that was the wrong attitude. Instead, I dug past all of this — and it does take a lot of digging — to get back to Chipotle's signature achievement: They were the first in their sector to pay serious attention to where their ingredients were coming from. From the get-go, they did it imperfectly, and with a tin ear for the disconnect between their promises and some of their practices. But, goddammit, they really were trying.
And isn’t that what those of us who care about our food system want? Say what you will about Chipotle, their example set the tone for other large chains to make animal welfare commitments. When McDonald’s commits to cage-free eggs, you know it’s gone mainstream.
That’s what we want: a choice of restaurants and markets that source ingredients with attention to their provenance, and still feed us affordably. And if Chipotle is doing it imperfectly, don’t we want to help the guys who were first out of the gate do it better?
I sure do. Yes, you can get a 1,000-calorie burrito stuffed with sour cream, cheese, and beef from conventionally raised animals because — oops! — they ran out of the other kind. But you can also get a 600-calorie bowl with reasonably raised chicken, brown rice, black beans, and tomato salsa (still salty, but let’s not let perfect be the enemy of pretty damn good — which is basically our theme here today).
Here’s what it really comes down to: Does Chipotle really want to make the world a better place, or are they merely pandering to the food-woke, the consumers who open their wallets for anything natural, organic, local, and non-GMO? I think it’s both, and you can’t do the first without doing some of the second. You’re not going to make the world a better place if your business fails, and staying afloat means doing the things that make consumers comfortable enough to eat lunch with you.
There isn’t perfect alignment between what makes the world better and what makes consumers comfortable, so you have to muddle through as best you can. I think that’s what Chipotle has been trying to do. But I’d certainly feel a little more charitable about it if they’d hold the sanctimony and put something else on the cups.
The company is struggling to recover from that litany of woe, but there are signs of improvement. Their first-quarter same-store sales were up for the first time in over a year, and the stock has made up about a third of what it lost. But there’s still a long way to go, so maybe it's time to give it a hand up. Meet you there for a burrito.
Tamar Haspel writes the James Beard award-winning Washington Post column, Unearthed. Madeline Fabbro is a Brooklyn based illustrator who likes cold brews and spills a bottle of ink once a week.
Editor: Erin DeJesus