The Rise and Fal (and Rise Again?) of Chipotle
A writer is grossed out by, and disenchanted with, Chipotle.
By Rosie Holden Vacanti Gilroy
NYU students are always within a few block radius of at least one Chipotle. In fact, in many areas of the Village, it’s hard to know which Chipotle is closest — burrito cravings can be satisfied at the Chipotle locations on 8th Street, 12th Street, 6th Avenue, and St. Mark’s, just to name a few.
I had my last burrito (vegetarian, extra beans, no salsa) about a week ago at the Chipotle on 8th Street. When I say my last burrito, I mean that it was both my most recent meal at Chipotle, and after researching this article, probably my final venture into the fast-food chain for the foreseeable future. Read on — depending on the intensity of your Chipotle devotion (or is it an addiction?), you may just join me in my burrito moratorium.
2015 was a bad year for Chipotle. Between July and December, over 500 people in thirteen states across the country became sick with food-related illnesses after eating at the Mexican food chain. Customers at various locations fell ill with E. coli, Salmonella, and the biggest culprit of all, norovirus.
Although there were numerous outbreaks in the last half of 2015, the worst two were by far at Chipotle locations in Simi Valley and Boston. In August, an employee at Chipotle in Simi Valley came to work sick for two days, infecting 207 customers, before being diagnosed with norovirus, the most common cause of food-related sickness (the all-too-familiar symptoms of this virus include vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea). The location was later shut down for inspection and, in December, Chipotle received a grand jury subpoena forcing the company to hand over documents related to the norovirus outbreak at the Simi Valley restaurant.
In December, 140 Chipotle customers, many of them college students, fell ill with norovirus after eating at Chipotle near Boston College — this location, too, temporarily closed. During October and November of 2015, over 50 people fell ill from E. coli after eating at Chipotle in nine different states. Additionally, there was another, albeit smaller, E. coli outbreak in December.
Unsurprisingly, all of the food-related illness caused by eating in Chipotles across the country had a detrimental impact on the company as a whole. Chipotle stocks dropped 40 percent in value and some estimates suggest the company is worth $10 billion less than it was before the widely covered health scares. Compared to 2014, December sales were down 30 percent in Chipotle restaurants and fourth quarter sales dropped 14 percent.
I asked around to find out if NYU students are adding to Chipotle’s financial woes by going burrito-less and the answers varied. Emily Jensen, a College of Arts and Sciences junior who spent last semester at NYU Paris, is not deterred: “I only stopped going to Chipotle because I was overseas and it was awful in France. My actual first meal upon landing in the States was Chipotle.” On the other hand, Alex Braverman, a senior in CAS is more concerned. “I am definitely more wary of eating Chipotle now,” she told me. Additionally, a friend of mine was recently offered a coupon for a free meal and a bag of chips from Chipotle but declined the offer — she is too afraid to go back to the Mexican-food chain. Yes, that’s right; some college students have completely sworn off Chipotle, even free Chipotle.
As I previously stated, I did eat at Chipotle after the health scares, but it should be known that I did so with a free burrito coupon in hand. On February 8th, Chipotle offered to send coupons for free burritos to anyone who texted “raincheck” to 888-222. Two days after sending the text, I received the following, rather casual message from Chipotle: “Here it is. Ur free burrito,” followed by a link to my digital coupon code. Who am I to turn down a free burrito?
Free burritos are just one of the many ways in which Chipotle is attempting to rehabilitate its image. In fact, the company is said to be spending $50 million on its après-outbreak comeback. On December 10th, Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells spoke on the Today Show, promising that “the procedures we’re putting in place today are so above industry norms that we are going to be the safest place to eat.” Chipotle, months after causing its burrito-loving constituency truly grave illnesses, and sending many to the hospital, is rebranding itself as the “safest place to eat.”
On February 8th, every Chipotle in America very publicly closed for four hours so that employees could attend a companywide, virtual meeting and learn about newly-implemented safety procedures. Chipotle is taking further precaution and offering paid sick leave so that employees do not come into work when they are under the weather and risk spreading illnesses, such as norovirus. It’s about time.
Furthermore, Chipotle has publicly announced on its website that it will spend $10 million to train the small local farmers who supply various Chipotle locations with its ingredients. The company promises this will benefit Chipotle, as well as any other companies the farmers may source.
Safety is certainly at the forefront of Chipotle’s post-outbreak publicity, but the company is also reminding burrito-lovers of the its lengthy history. I recently heard an advertisement on NPR that touted Chipotle’s 22-year legacy — I had not realized that Chipotle is older than I am. I thought the chain originated just before its hey-day during my middle-school years.
Steve Ells, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, founded Chipotle in 1993 in Denver, Colorado — unsurprisingly, in a storefront very close to the University of Denver campus. The simple burrito shop proved to be immensely popular. Eventually, Ells began his expansion, venturing to Kansas City in 1998, and Minneapolis 1999.
In 1998, McDonald’s began investing in Chipotle, becoming the chain’s largest investor by 2001. With the help of McDonald’s, Chipotle was able to expand exponentially. The Mexican restaurant went from having 16 locations in 1998 to having over 500 by 2005. Though McDonald’s divested in 2006, Chipotle went public that year with the most profitable U.S.-based IPO in six years. The company’s stock price rose 100 percent during its first day on the New York Stock Exchange.
Two years later, in 2008, Chipotle expanded internationally, opening its first location outside the U.S. in Toronto, Canada. Today, Chipotle can be found in France (the largest Chipotle in the world is in Paris), England, and Germany.
For years, Chipotle has claimed to serve “Food With Integrity” — the company has always tried to dissociate itself from other fast food chains. Perhaps this is why, when the first Chipotle opened in my home city in 2010, I ate there not only with my friends but occasionally with my family. I can think of no other fast food chain in which my parents would be caught dead. Chipotle was the exception, with its supposedly fresher, more organic ingredients, its minimalist interiors comprised of steel and wood accents, an altogether appealing aesthetic. It couldn’t be that unhealthy.
It turns out that my parents made a miscalculation — we would have been better off going to the dingy McDonald’s across the street. A Chipotle burrito contains far more calories and considerably more sodium than even a Big Mac. Today, Chipotle’s unhealthiness is news to no one; the chain’s burritos are consistently included on lists of the worst foods to eat in America.
Chipotle doesn’t hide its sky-high calorie count; in fact, there is a “Nutrition Calculator” on the Chipotle website that allows customers to see the specs on their burrito/taco/bowl/salad creation. While researching this article, I checked out this number-cruncher and learned the “nutrition” facts of my typical Chipotle order. My vegetarian burrito clocked in at whopping 1080 calories, with 1740 mg of sodium and 55 grams of fat. Yes, that slugger I happily consumed last week contained over half of a suggested day’s worth of calories, 240 milligrams more sodium than the daily amount suggested by the American Heart Association, and essentially one day’s worth of fat intake. Yet, unlike other fast food chains, Chipotle has managed to evade the dietary stigma — there is undoubtedly less shame involved in a meal at Chipotle than there is in one at McDonald’s, Burger King, or Taco Bell.
If Chipotle’s safety overhaul is successful, the chain will inevitably bounce back from the health scare and there will again be long lines for burritos at the locations on 8th Street and at the 2,010 Chipotle’s around the world. Years ago, Chipotle convinced diners to view it not as a fast food restaurant but as an establishment serving “Food With Integrity.” This image has clearly paid off: last week, the cashier at the organic, member-run, food co-op on 4th Street in the East Village spooned drippy mounds of a Chipotle burrito bowl into his mouth as he weighed my purchase. I knew, at that moment, that even if I’m not entirely alone in my boycott of Chipotle, the burrito chain will be just fine — if 500 cases of Chipotle-induced illnesses didn’t completely ruin the restaurant’s image, nothing can. Chipotle is here to stay, though according to my most recent visit to IWasPoisoned.com, a website on which diners can inform others of potential poison palaces, not without the occasional sick customer.
Originally published 05/10/16