The Chipotlification of American Fast Food
November 16, 2014 8:34 PM   Subscribe

The Atlantic's Adam Chandler analyzes Taco Bell's latest "Live Más app" and how it's a result of the "Chipotlification" of fast food.

"Fast-casual" food chains like Chipotle implement business models that allow customers to customize every single facet of their food order, leaving other fast food chains struggling to keep up.

"Millennials are spurring the fast-casual craze, which has become the fastest growing segment of the restaurant industry. The fast-casual standard-bearer has been Chipotle, which, in addition to using locally sourced food, also allows consumers the chance to customize their meals. Ditto for the hamburgers at places like Five Guys. Millennials have demands: Sometimes, it's spicy and mild hot sauce, other times, it's a burger with A1 and caramelized onions."
posted by ourt (55 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
And here I thought "Chipotlification" meant the cargo-cult mentality of everyone changing their rice from spanish-style rice to lime-cilantro rice (for example, Taco Bell) rather than, you know, actually consider why Chipotle is beating the pants off them.

Hints: it's

- no-hassle, no-extra-cost 'extra cheese / light sauce / extra lettuce'
- fresher higher quality ingredients
- a simple menu with "burrito" meaning anything from their building blocks, same price
- no hidden kitchen or food prep lines where Joe Smith has done the rice wrong again and doesn't care about how many customers chip a tooth on trying to chew gravel
- NOT charging extra 30 to 50cents for every. tiny. thing. you want to add (cf Taco Bell's doomed to failure "Give Mas Dinero" app).


I posit the following transcript, from board meetings across the food world:
CEO: "Hm, Chipotle is eating our lunch, gentlemen. How do we fight back?"
Exec #1: "Better ingredients?"
Exec #2: "Stop putting less and less cheese in our stuff?"
Exec #3: "Higher consistent quality?"
Exec #4: "Switch our rice to lime-cilantro rice?"
CEO: "Yes! Let the development kitchen know they're working late tonight. Put them on the lime-cilantro rice case immediately."
posted by chimaera at 8:48 PM on November 16, 2014 [29 favorites]


Customizing a meal at Taco Bell, however, has never been an option.

Um... wat? I've never had a problem customizing builds, and having a few friends who worked Taco Bell over high school summers, my understanding was that their system was completely capable of billing out random food parts for whatever crazy combination an employee wanted to try out.
posted by pwnguin at 8:49 PM on November 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


I've never had a problem customizing builds

This has been my experience as well. Aside from them forgetting to throw in a side of Sour Cream when I've ordered it, but that just means I check the bag before I leave.
posted by radwolf76 at 9:04 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's not so much about whether customization is possible, but whether customization is practical.

You can ask for an item at Taco Bell to be made with no tomatoes, and then not discover until after leaving the premises that it was made with tomatoes after all. The interactive assembly line at Chipotle gives the customer higher confidence that they are getting what they think they are getting. And plenty of customers make a habit out of trying to optimize that interactive experience.

So it's hard to imagine how an operation like Taco Bell or Guzman y Gomez could succeed in becoming "more like Chipotle" when they are clearly not considering moving assembly out of the back of the house.
posted by Phssthpok at 9:07 PM on November 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


Once I discovered the off-menu Quesorito at Chipotle I don't think I can go back to any of the normal stuff. There's truly a touch of divinity in it, I'm convinced. (PS it's very very bad for you but who cares)
posted by naju at 9:26 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


The interactive assembly line at Chipotle

The amazing thing is that this alleged Chipotle innovation the fast food world has suddenly gotten excited about is the same concept long available in every cheap taqueria in California. The only thing Chipotle did was build 1,600 of them, raise prices, and make the ingredients more bland.
posted by zachlipton at 9:42 PM on November 16, 2014 [24 favorites]


make the ingredients more bland

No kidding, but to their credit the quality is consistent and it never gives you that funny tummy feeling that crappier fast food provides. For a cheap chain, it's about as good as it gets.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:46 PM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


Between the south side of Chicago and all over Texas, I've never seen a taqueria with an assembly line.
posted by kmz at 9:48 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


In fairness, I am spoiled by living a neighborhood over from the Mission in SF. When I find myself in the food desert that is Midtown Manhattan, I'm grateful for a Chipotle.
posted by zachlipton at 9:58 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


The interactive assembly line at Chipotle gives the customer higher confidence that they are getting what they think they are getting. And plenty of customers make a habit out of trying to optimize that interactive experience.

...the quality is consistent and it never gives you that funny tummy feeling that crappier fast food provides. For a cheap chain, it's about as good as it gets.

From my understanding, it's these two characteristics that make Chipotle so successful. Aside from the possibility (and reality, in my experience) of the range of customer service, I at least know I'm getting what I asked and paid for.

Also, if you're interested in this topic enough, Inside Chipotle delves a little bit into Chipotle's history, its past/current business models and its ambitions for the next few years. It's a few years old, if I'm not mistaken, but it's pretty insightful and a decent enough watch if you've free time, but not much mental capacity to consume anything more substantial.
posted by ourt at 10:00 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


No kidding, but to their credit the quality is consistent and it never gives you that funny tummy feeling that crappier fast food provides. For a cheap chain, it's about as good as it gets.

Until a few months ago I'd never eaten at a Chipotle. The main reason for this is that until about a year or two ago there wasn't a Chipotle near me, but I live in L.A. so even once it opened, there's no shortage of great, cheap Mexican food close by.

However, there really aren't any Vietnamese restaurants in my neighborhood so last year, when I heard the Chipotle people were going to open a Shop House, their new SE Asian "concept," I was happy because Vietnamese food is my favorite, it was better than nothing, and I knew at least it would be pretty healthy.

So the big day finally arrives, and I get what will become my "usual", a bowl with pork & chicken meatballs and a 1-flame vegetable. I took the first bite, and my very first thought was, "Ah --Now I know exactly what a Chipotle burrito tastes like."

It's very good for what it is, and if I get a bowl with a starch instead of greens that can easily be two meat-based meals for under $8. And if you've ever eaten at Chipotle and have a passing familiarity with Vietnamese food, you can totally extrapolate what Shop House tastes like.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:14 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I LOVE Shop House. Love it more than Chipotle, honestly.

I think it's Chipotle's way of going about their business that's what's most sensational about them, honestly. The food alone doesn't cut it, so implementing it into other cuisines might yield more profit.

That's what this article is trying, albeit failing to hint at, imo.
posted by ourt at 11:16 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm just waiting for the day these things destroy fast-food as we know it. Yeah, it'll cost 3 million US jobs, but they were crappy jobs. And our food will be better, healthier even.

(now just ship the damned thing already and get going on your Burrito machine).
posted by el io at 12:10 AM on November 17, 2014


el io: "fast-food as we know it" is just hamburgers? Their website doesn't get four sentences in before chaining itself to that assumption. It doesn't complete a sentence past that before becoming ungrammatical.
posted by 7segment at 12:40 AM on November 17, 2014


"You said you want bacon on a Doritos Locos taco?" the cashier asked. I guess I did, but I had never wanted to say it aloud.

Life can be so...unjust.
posted by duffell at 3:33 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Reading this thread, it sounds like other people use restaurants differently than me. To me, a restaurant is a place where you order from a menu. "Here's the things we make, which one do you want?" There may be some slight parameterization, such as how well done you want your meat cooked. This is why it's a "hassle" to customize your order at Taco Bell--that's not what Taco Bell is for.

You guys are using restaurants like a personalized chef who can create anything particular food space. Chipotle for the "vaguely tex-mex" space, Five Guys for the "hamburger and hamburger accessories" space. Which is fine, I guess, but..

Maybe I'm old, but when I want to control every detail of a meal, I just make it myself. For me, it's a "hassle" to have to stand over the preparer, controlling them via puppet strings to make my ideal meal. They are inevitably going to change ingredients or offerings or something and make you sad anyway, so if you want that much control you really have to do it yourself. Or hire a cook.
posted by DU at 4:26 AM on November 17, 2014 [7 favorites]


Also, am I the only person who has ever been to Subway? Because they were doing this at least 2 decades before Chipotle "revolutionized" anything.
posted by DU at 4:29 AM on November 17, 2014 [24 favorites]


If I had to give credit to a chain with popularizing a high level of customization and doing the assembly out in the open at the direction of the customer, it wouldn't be Chipotle; it would be Subway. They were doing this in the 80's, albeit without the locally sourced part of the formula.
posted by jon1270 at 4:31 AM on November 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


D'oh, beaten to it.
posted by jon1270 at 4:31 AM on November 17, 2014




When I find myself in the food desert that is Midtown Manhattan

That's becoming less and less true. Xi'an Famous Foods and Num Pang fit the quick delicious food niche perfectly.
posted by Hubajube at 4:56 AM on November 17, 2014


I don't understand what Chipotle's big innovation is supposed to have been. Isn't Chipotle just Tex-Mex Subway?
posted by yeolcoatl at 5:28 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


The only thing Chipotle did was build 1,600 of them, raise prices, and make the ingredients more bland.
---
No kidding, but to their credit the quality is consistent and it never gives you that funny tummy feeling that crappier fast food provides.
---
The food alone doesn't cut it, so implementing it into other cuisines might yield more profit.

Wow, so much shit-talking about Chipotle's food quality. I don't know about LA or anywhere else with a large Mexican immigrant population, but out in Tidewater Virginia, it is a huge step up over the alternatives.
posted by indubitable at 5:35 AM on November 17, 2014 [4 favorites]


Here's my mom's one easy trick to get the hottest, freshest French fries from McDonald's: ask for them without salt and they'll scoop them hot out of the very next batch before they get hit with salt.

But JimInLoganSquare is right; customization is exactly how Burger King tried to set itself apart from McDonald's 40(!) years ago. Also, I totally forgot there was a second verse!
posted by Room 641-A at 5:54 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


To me, a restaurant is a place where you order from a menu.

Yeah, I've never really seen the appeal of choose-your-own-adventure menus. I want someone to say, "these are the best toppings for the chicken, and these are the best toppings for the pork."

A happy medium is when they let you choose whatever you want, but then also provide a few named options for the people who like limited options.
posted by smackfu at 5:57 AM on November 17, 2014


Chipotle is a great way to suck all the pleasure out of food.
posted by nerdler at 6:15 AM on November 17, 2014


Isn't Chipotle just Tex-Mex Subway?

Close, but there is absolutely no cilantro in Tex-Mex. That's a Baja thing.
posted by LizBoBiz at 6:29 AM on November 17, 2014


I've been to Chipotles a couple of times and thought the food pretty blah. It seemed to me the real appeal of the place is trendy decor and free Wifi, more than those thoroughly average burritos (and, from my experience) bland salsa and guac.
posted by aught at 7:08 AM on November 17, 2014


There are multiple tex-mex places and more authentic taquerias near where I work but everyone still goes to Chipotle for lunch. I've been pondering this for a while. There's a Qdoba right next to Chipotle. Why Chipotle and not Qdoba?

The only reasons I can come up with are very limp. Trendiness and familiarity.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:16 AM on November 17, 2014


Chipotle is okay, I guess, but their rice is a waste of space. If customization is why people eat there, it's truly a triumph of process over substance.
posted by tommasz at 7:30 AM on November 17, 2014


Nthing that Taco Bell's options for customization are vast and plentiful. That's actually a big part of why I like it -- if I decide I want my 7-Layer Burrito grilled (do it, it's amazing), and with no sour cream, they can do that, and they don't bat an eyelash. Seriously, you can make whatever you want from TB's ingredients and they will come through for you.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:42 AM on November 17, 2014


That depends a lot on the Taco Bell franchisee, in my experience. In some shops, the employees are incapable of fulfilling any order correctly or even of providing correct change, and the management doesn't care. In other shops the staff are well-trained and attentive to customer requests. Sometimes they're as interested as the customer is in experimenting with the order.
posted by ardgedee at 7:50 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


If you compare Chipotle to similar places in California or Texas (Changos, I miss you so much), then it falls way short in comparison. But if, like me, you grew up in various wastelands in Virginia and Delaware, places like Chipotle, Starbucks, and freaking Borders were godsends, both because they gave you access to decent food, coffee, and books, and because they taught everyone else to expect that access.

I easily took good food for granted when I lived in Chicago or Austin, but I love the fact that I can convince my Colorado Springs co-workers to have lunch at Chipoltle instead of the non-customizable grease-fest that is Chili's. I'd rather see a proliferation of line-assembled meals made from unimaginative but edible ingredients that than TJ O'Pootertoots model of loaded potato skins and walls covered with random farming and sporting artifacts.
posted by bibliowench at 8:03 AM on November 17, 2014 [14 favorites]


Here's my mom's one easy trick to get the hottest, freshest French fries from McDonald's:

Debunked here a couple weeks ago.
posted by achrise at 8:21 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Now that I think about it it's probably been at least 20 years since my mom's been to a McDonalds, so she was definitely part of the problem

Thanks Omoma.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:06 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


You can ask for an item at Taco Bell to be made with no tomatoes, and then not discover until after leaving the premises that it was made with tomatoes after all. The interactive assembly line at Chipotle gives the customer higher confidence that they are getting what they think they are getting.

Yes! I actually really like a lot of Taco Bell food but I very seldom go there because 1) I live in a city and I'd have to drive 2) It is ENORMOUSLY challenging to get what you order. You'll get the wrong taco, or chips but no cheese, or cheese but no chips, or whatever weird thing, and it's really frustrating to have to go through your order and feel like a jerk for complaining every time you go.

Once Mr. Pterodactyl and I went to Taco Bell and the bag felt weirdly heavy but we were just like "whatever, we're hungover and probably just got a lot of stuff". No, that was not it; when we got home we realized they had given us seven half-pound burritos we had not ordered so yeah, the bag was several pounds heavier than anticipated. I mean, we ate them obviously, and it was ridiculous in a completely absurd way (seriously? You just accidentally throw 3.5 pounds of extra burrito into a bag?) but even though I like Taco Bell it's just basically impossible to get the thing you actually want.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:14 AM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


When I have to cook for anything more than a few people, my go-to is to basically mimic a Chipotle assembly line and just let everyone assemble their own. Because if I try to come up with one or even two or three pre-assembled options that will accommodate everyone's special diets and random fussiness, I'm going to end up with a bunch of whiny jerks picking through everything and throwing away the parts they don't like. (Parenthetically: Grrrrr.)

And fast food restaurants are probably dealing with the same creeping fussbudgetry, so it makes perfect sense for them to codify that and let people 'assemble' their own food from an app instead of requiring employees to follow a detailed narrative every time.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:01 AM on November 17, 2014


For the people who are puzzled by Chipotle's popularity, I'm genuinely curious what other fairly healthy, fairly inexpensive, and fairly convenient options most people have, especially if they're grabbing something on a lunch break.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:17 AM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm genuinely curious what other fairly healthy, fairly inexpensive, and fairly convenient options most people have

I work a block from a long strip of restaurants, so a lot. The Chipotle there doesn't have room for a line larger than 20 people, so I will sometimes see people standing outside waiting while the Qdoba one block down has like 5 people in it. Their prices and set up are the same, Qdoba just skews healthier. There's also a few sandwich shops, a Noodles and Co., a cheap fast food Mediterranean place, other taco shops, and then fast food places like Taco Bell. I just compare it to Qdoba since their offerings are so similar. There's clearly something much more attractive about Chipotle.
posted by tofu_crouton at 11:23 AM on November 17, 2014


el io, I found that reading that burger making machine ad copy works much better if you do it while playing Powerhouse by Raymond Scott.

The bottom line for Chipotle over Taco Bell for me, and I say this as someone who trained people to work at Taco Bell, is that Chipotle just tastes much better than TB. Neither holds a candle to some of the taco trucks around here, though.
posted by happyroach at 11:24 AM on November 17, 2014


Chipotle is a great way to suck all the pleasure out of food.

Eh. It's good for what it is, better than the alternatives, and if there isn't a hipster taqueria or otherwise certified-auténtico food joint within miles of where you work, it's good enough, and often better than good enough. I like Qdoba a lot too, but Qdoba has 600 locations and is closing more and more of them, whereas Chipotle is opening 205 new locations in 2015.
posted by blucevalo at 11:29 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Between the south side of Chicago and all over Texas, I've never seen a taqueria with an assembly line."

It's a west coast innovation, I believe. You see this done alot in San Francisco and L.A. It's not necessary in Chicago because they know what does, (fried beans), and what does not, (rice), go into a burrito.
Texas has lousy Mexican food because Texans are always trying too hard not to be Mexican. This manifests as the use of American cheese food as an ingredient, and the mispronunciation of street names.
The chipotlification of fast food can't come soon enough for me. I'm on the road all the time, and have to eat the worst stuff imaginable. In spite of Chipotle's use of unfried beans, (and they removed the bacon from the pinto beans - now you have two flavorless choices!), they still put out a quality meal. Outside of major cities, there's little else to choose from.
posted by sudon't at 11:41 AM on November 17, 2014


Why Chipotle and not Qdoba?

Chipotle consistently has food available for everyone regardless of allergies or other food preferences. Gluten free? No problem. Vegan? Go for it! No nuts? Also ok. That's really worth something.

Also, not so scary for people who like things to be consistent and don't break out of routine. It's just a LITTLE different instead of a lot different.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:59 AM on November 17, 2014


I've lived in California all my life and I still actually like Chipotle well enough. They don't do real Mexican exactly, they do their own thing with a well-chosen palette of flavors. I eat two burritos in an average week - why yes I seem to have grown a bit of a potbelly lately why do you ask? - one from Chipotle by my work and one from a local (well apparently a chain but endemic to my city) place near where I live, the special one with lots of cilantro and onions.
posted by atoxyl at 12:34 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


I TOO AM FAR TOO KNOWLEDGABLE ABOUT AND PERSONALLY INVESTED IN AUTHENTIC Mexican food__ TO CONSIDER THE PATHETIC SWILL KNOWN AS _Chpitole___ TO BE WORTH MY WHILE, OR INDEED EVEN TO MERIT THE LEVEL OF ATTENTION NECESSARY TO SPELL IT CORRECTLY. FURTHERMORE,
posted by invitapriore at 2:09 PM on November 17, 2014 [6 favorites]


Why Chipotle and not Qdoba?

My local Qdoba was great, OK, and bad, in about equal distributions depending on the day and who they could get behind the counter. It wasn't remotely consistent and closed recently after about 8 years. I don't think employees are trained as well, and I know the average tenure was short.

I think a big reason for this is that Qdoba is a franchise and Chipotle is a chain. Chipotle's product is burritos and their customers are burrito eaters. Qdoba's product is restaurants and their customers are people who think they can run a restaurant.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 2:15 PM on November 17, 2014 [6 favorites]


Interesting, I didn't realize that Chipotle didn't franchise. That does make a difference, assuming it's a well run company.
posted by smackfu at 2:17 PM on November 17, 2014


My biggest problem with chipotle that i hope no one emulates is that their tortillas are made out of like, latex or something. Seriously, you can't bite through that shit and when you finally do you basically tear it way below where you bit and stuff just falls out into the tray. Their ingredients are decent, but the tortillas, wtf.

also, i'm sad that chipotle seems to be thriving on the slow decline of taco del mar, which used to rule. I really wish they hadn't started charging for sour cream and guacamole, because that was like the easy to demark point at which they started to suck.

naju: Once I discovered the off-menu Quesorito at Chipotle I don't think I can go back to any of the normal stuff. There's truly a touch of divinity in it, I'm convinced. (PS it's very very bad for you but who cares)

I'm still mad about the first time i tried to get this. The lady was just about to make it for me and then the buttface manager came over and said "what are you doing?" "Oh, making a quesadilla burrito" "you can't do that", then she turned to me and went "yea, you can't get that".

"Why?"

"you just can't!"

I left, defeated and angry.

I eventually got one, but i still get mad when i think about that.


I did eventually get one though, and holy shit, it's amazing. The tortilla was all slightly burny and perfect and just... holy fuck.

It was also pretty much the most filling thing i've ever eaten. i couldn't even drink water afterwards i was so full.
posted by emptythought at 2:30 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


I LOVE Shop House. Love it more than Chipotle, honestly.

Here's a thing I do that's super filling and thrifty:

1) Get a Shop House bowl to go, however you like it prepared.
2) At home, heat up a 6-qt pot of stock. You can use homemade, cartons, cans, cubes or whatever works for you. I use chicken, but veggie or beef would be fine, too.
3) Dump in your Shop House bowl and enjoy your Instant Vaguely SE Asian Pot Of Soup!

If you want to go wild, add other stuff or seasonings.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:06 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


There's a place here in New Haven called Tikaway that is trying to be the Chipotle of Indian food. Their five-star rating on Yelp makes me think they hit on something.
posted by smackfu at 4:25 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


In spite of Chipotle's use of unfried beans

Just so we're clear: refried beans are not fried.
posted by pwnguin at 5:48 PM on November 17, 2014


Okay, I'm an idiot; they're just not fried twice.
posted by pwnguin at 6:49 PM on November 17, 2014


"Okay, I'm an idiot; they're just not fried twice."

Refried, for those who don't know, comes from a mistranslation of "frijoles refritos", which simply means "fried beans." You're not the only one who didn't understand this at first.
Getting back to Chipotle for a moment, the problem with boiled, unfried beans is the water. Unless you have a bed of rice to absorb that, your burrito will fall apart. And rice doesn't belong in a burrito. I have spoken.
posted by sudon't at 11:19 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Somehow I got it into my head via wikipedia or ehow or some other BS that refritos meant smashed and that they were simply smashed beans. But yes, bean & rice soup is an adaquate description of Chipotle burritos.
posted by pwnguin at 1:07 AM on November 19, 2014


Close, but there is absolutely no cilantro in Tex-Mex. That's a Baja thing.
posted by LizBoBiz at 6:29 AM on November 17 [+] [!]


Fair enough. I usually make central, with occasional Yucatecan. I don't really understand the crazy things norteños eat.
posted by yeolcoatl at 6:37 AM on November 19, 2014


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