On January 8, 2016

It makes me sick

I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten at Chipotle: the company operates a single restaurant in Vermont (in Burlington), but with roughly 2,000 locations worldwide and billions in yearly revenue, the fast-casual Mexican chain has reigned for the past decade as the trendiest large-scale dining enterprise in the United States.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is Taco Bell with a superiority complex, marked by higher prices, a contemporary industrial-chic design (with stainless steel surfaces and exposed pipes, ducts, and cables) standing in for Taco Bell’s Speedy Gonzales take on Mission Revival architecture, and, most importantly, a self-righteousness put forth by advertising materials stuffed with “all-natural”-style phraseology, no GMOs, and a visible commitment to both “culture” (in the form, for example, of original short stories by high-profile authors printed on its food’s packaging) and environmentalism.

The food tastes OK, but smugness was Chipotle’s real innovation: nobody in the fast-food game—the bottom-dwellers of the restaurant industry—had ever thought to adopt its holier-than-thou attitude, which ultimately endeared the company to self-consciously upscale consumers whose pride had long ago written off McDonald’s. Its fans include famed locavore Michael Pollan, and most Millennials love it.

Whether you’ve eaten at a Chipotle or not, you may have read about the food safety issues currently plaguing the company (and, no less, its vomiting, trembling customers). Since July, multiple outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus have sickened hundreds—if not thousands—of Chipotle diners across the country. Sales have dropped; the stock, worth $750 per share in October, has plummeted to $495.

Chipotle is not the first fast-food chain to have yielded an outbreak of foodborne illness. Most infamously, E. coli at Jack in the Box killed four children in 1993, sending many others to the hospital, and the bacterium has—with less extreme but still awful results—sneaked at various points into the food at Burger King, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s.

One of the pleasures of eating fast food is the unreality of it: it is virtually impossible, when consuming a Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s, to believe that the patty represents the flesh of an actual fish that once swam around in the ocean, that the cheese came from an enormous mooing cow, that some farmer actually had to grow the wheat for the bun—that somehow all of these real things came together in a package so clearly synthetic. The food emerges, rather, as if from a void, without texture, tasting of nothing except salt. You hardly notice yourself eating it: it’s like watching a television rerun.

In a way, the meal is an act of self-forgetfulness: by failing so thoroughly to serve your nutritional needs, it makes no obvious assertions as to your status as a living human organism, and the ingredients, severed from their sources, do nothing to remind you that you inhabit a broader, bountiful world of toiling and needful men and women. Some kind of existential burden disappears at a fast-food restaurant, where the act of eating is disconnected from its elemental nature, its life-giving and life-consuming properties subsumed by the depersonalizing banality and artificiality of the experience.

It always strikes me as unexpected when outbreaks of foodborne illness arise from fast-food restaurants; to me, this seems to assert that what these restaurants serve in fact is real food, with all the risks of contamination and spoilage inherent to any biological product. But because this idea goes against my gut instinct, I quickly forget about these instances, well-publicized though they may sometimes be. Their food to me will always be plastic. At Wendy’s, I fear nothing.

On the other hand, I don’t really see how anyone can eat at Chipotle ever again. It’s not just that the company’s violations have been worse, more varied, and more widespread than those of most of its humbler competitors. It’s a psychological issue: Chipotle forces you to think about food when you eat there—the reality of it (or at least a feel-good fantasy of that reality), what it’s made of and where it came from: the farmer who planted the cilantro, the daily lives of the cows and pigs that gave up their skeletal muscle for your tacos. This is Chipotle’s marketing niche and the reason for its popularity among modern diners who believe that every consumer experience should be one of substance.

In reality, the food safety missteps of Chipotle will force it to adopt a more industrialized process, like McDonald’s. Previously, the company trusted each of its restaurants to operate pretty much as an actual restaurant—sourcing ingredients locally on occasion, prepping meats (never frozen) and vegetables (never boiled) on premises, cooking them by traditional rather than automated methods—instead of shipping out pre-prepared foodstuffs from a few tightly regulated, centralized kitchens, with each individual restaurant operating only as an assembly station. However, as the chain got bigger and bigger, this model was perhaps doomed at some level to fail.

Still, the marketing won’t change: this is still “real food,” and you are still a “real person” when you eat it. Well, real life is inherently risky, isn’t it? I think I’ll pass.

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