There are few things that are able to capture almost universal love from the Internet generation. To that end, picture this: You’re sitting in bed and watching Netflix. Maybe you’re drinking some wine. But something is missing. There’s another element needed to complete this trifecta. And that’s why you’re also eating Chipotle.
While there are people out there who don’t love Chipotle Mexican Grill (the creators of South Park, for example), it doesn’t feel that way. If anything, it feels more like Chipotle is slowly taking over the world, one burrito at a time. Occasionally, you’ll hear similarly passionate enthusiasm for fast food places like Whataburger and In N’ Out, but those are regional chains, while Chipotle is national. People on both sides of the aisle like it so much, it recently became the setting of a standoff over gun rights. Now, with their ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen chain expanding, plus plans to rollout another chain called Pizzeria Locale, who knows how far their empire will ultimately reach.
But Chipotle didn’t become the most popular kid in school by accident. Though careful procedure, and brilliant business strategy, Chipotle has transformed itself into more than just another chain. It took 20 years, but today, Chipotle stands tall as the Internet’s favorite fast food restaurant. These are the reasons why.
1) They understand good branding.
More than any other fast food chain in existence today, Chipotle understands what branding is, and, more importantly, how to rise above it. Because the key to all good branding is to make it look like you’re not doing any branding at all. And the key to that is to sell a product that people are legitimately excited about. And with Chipotle, consumer excitement goes beyond the food. Make no mistake, the food is still the central part of the equation. But at least part of Chipotle’s success is due to the fact that their brand is about more than that.
“Abercrombie & Fitch sells sex. Harley-Davidson (HOG) sells rebellion. Chipotle sells idealism,” wrote Bloomberg’s Leslie Patton last year. “The burrito chain has long pushed sustainable food in its 1,400 restaurants. Now Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) is broadening out its message by selling organic-cotton hoodies, hosting festivals selling locavore fare, and backing a dark comedy video series centered on an evil PR guy hired to defend industrial farming.” The web series Patton is referring to, which is currently available on Hulu, is called Farmed and Dangerous and actually sports a fairly impressive pedigree, co-starring Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise and co-written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jeremy Pikser.
“Chipotle is creating a lifestyle brand to appeal to consumers who believe in sustainability,” Patton continues. “While it’s an unusual move for a restaurant chain, the likes of Abercrombie and Harley have been doing this kind of thing for years.”
Is it possible for Chipotle to truly create a “lifestyle brand,” on top of their already masterful fast food brand? Probably not, but if one fast food chain can pull it off, it’s Chipotle. They’re frequently ranked highly on “best fast food” lists, and as companies like McDonald’s (a one-time investor in Chipotle) continue to see their profits drop, Chipotle continues to best the competition.
And if that’s not enough proof of the power inherent in the Chipotle brand for you, consider the sheer amount of weird Internet fandom they’ve inspired. It’s hard to imagine any other fast food chain eliciting this kind of excitement. Just look at the nearly endless parade of gushing BuzzFeed lists about them for further illustration.
Chipotle’s brand takes them above and beyond your normal fast food restaurant, most notably because people are buying into it. Every major fast food chain has a brand, but most don’t have one that immediately conjures up such strong excitement.
2) They’re all about “fresh ingredients.”
There’s no denying that Chipotle’s food looks better than your average Mexican fast food offering. A lot of this surely has to do with the focus the company puts on organic, locally grown, sustainably-raised ingredients. However, while Chipotle’s spotlights themselves as being a natural alternative to the processed fair usually associated with fast food companies, the reality is that they still employ plenty of questionable business practices.
Here’s the thing though: Chipotle doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to stay on top; they just have to stay a little bit ahead of everyone else, as Chipotle’s ingredients are, indeed, of a higher quality than your usual fast food chain. However, that doesn’t mean their ingredients are perfect. It just means that their competitors are visibly underperforming in this regard. Which is why until the rest of the fast food world makes some dramatic changes, Chipotle will remain the king in terms of actual ingredients for the foreseeable future.
3) Their restaurant system was revolutionary.
Everyone who’s ever been in a Chipotle line during the lunch rush knows what an exhausting experience it can be. However, that Chipotle does as much business as it does (and gets people served as quickly and efficiently as they do) remains somewhat astounding. In fact, their system has been so innovative, it’s inspired a new kind of fast food restaurant altogether. As Denise Lee Yohan at Fast Company observes, “Chipotle began a trend in restaurants that the industry has dubbed ‘fast casual,’ which offers a more upscale dining environment and food quality, along with higher prices, but in the familiar, convenient limited service format of fast food.”
Now, Chipotle is trying to cut down on your wait time, too. Earlier this year, they began implementing a four-pronged plan to make their serving process faster. It’s essentially a revised version of the method they already had in place, but an early run has seen an increase of “six transactions per hour at peak times.” Chipotle’s founder and co-CEO said that their updated plan led to the companies’ “fastest throughput ever,” back in February, although he also added that, “We know we have a lot of room to get faster.”
It’s unlikely that if you walk into a major metropolitan area Chipotle between noon and 2pm on most days, you’ll find anything but a madhouse, but the point is that they’re making an effort. On top of which, their assembly line style service and “fast casual” atmosphere give patrons the best of both worlds, whether they want to dine in or carry out.
4) They offer enough healthy options for you not to feel totally disgusting.
To state the painfully obvious, it’s impossible to talk about Chipotle without talking about their menu. What separates them from other fast food restaurants therein is that at Chipotle, it’s actually possible to eat well. Moreover, they’re routinely ranked as one of the healthier fast food chains in operation today. This is largely due to their ever-expanding list of items, which give you the option to build a specially tailored, extremely customizable meal to suit virtually any diet you’re on. And with the amount of business their getting, it seems fair to say that their varied menu is appealing to just about everybody.
5) But enough unhealthy options where they can still be a guilty pleasure.
Look, at the end of the day, Chipotle is still fast food. For every healthy menu option, they have an equally unhealthy menu option, too. This is the place that pioneered the quesarito, after all (sorry, Taco Bell). Their ability to serve food that is bad for you is on par with any other calorie-cramming fast food joint.
But part of the appeal with fast food is always the guilty pleasure connotation. Like most successful fast food franchises, Chipotle gives you an opportunity to indulge. They just also happen to be better at providing healthier options alongside the more indulgent ones, in case you’d rather save your cheat day for later. So yes, it’s totally normal to pig out at Chipotle once in awhile, and not uncommon to bask in a kind of “Chipotlegasm” afterglow, if you will.
6) They occupy a specific space in the fast food world better than anyone else.
Chipotle is the reigning champ of Mexican fast food, no question about it. That’s why as we speak, Taco Bell is testing their new “upscale” restaurant. That’s why Qdoba is expanding their menu, in an attempt to keep up.
“There have been several periods of my life when I’m pretty sure my body mass was roughly 45–49 percent taco,” declared Top Chef’s Francis Lam, writing about his own experiences with Mexican fast food for Salon. “The first of these was when I was 17, when having both a driver’s license and a Taco Bell within five miles of my home turned into a volatile combination of liquid cheese and orange grease.”
Lam continues, “At some point, though, I came to discover what we might call Actual Mexican Food and I turned away from Taco Bell… Meanwhile, the two biggest ‘grown-up’ Mexican chains, Chipotle and Qdoba, are laughing all the way to el banco.” From there, Lam attempts to determine which of these two chains is better. The results were unsurprising.
“A few weeks ago, I tweeted that I was considering going to Chipotle for the first time, and dozens of people tweeted back to me,” Lam concludes, “I got my share of ‘Just say no!’ notes, but almost every professional cook and food writer who responded said something along the lines of, ‘Hey, it’s pretty good!’ So here you go. Chipotle: Hey, it’s pretty good! In fact, I think I’m headed there again right now.”
If Chipotle can get a rating of “pretty good” from most culinary professionals in America, then it’s doing something right. But Chipotle is being voted as outright great by the over half a million people in this country who eat eat there everyday, and that’s what really counts.
7) They’ve cultivated their own unique culture.
More than their ingredients, or their serving system, Chipotle is an entity with a distinct place in the American consciousness. Part of it is their brand, but with Chipotle, it’s more than that too.
In 2012, Matthew Yglesias at Slate compared them to Apple. “In many ways, the Chipotle burrito is very similar to the iPhone. Founder Steve Ells invented a way to maintain the basic speed and experience of the standard fast-food experience and make the quality of the food a little better,” Yglesias wrote. What the culture of Chipotle is all about then, according to Yglesias, is standing out in a crowded fast food landscape. You don’t necessarily have to like Chipotle, but as is the case with Apple, you’re definitely going to remember them.
So, what makes Chipotle’s culture so distinct? Patton notes that the company puts money into “festivals, where the restaurant brings in bands, craft-beer brewers and celebrity chefs” but worries less about traditional advertising. She also states that Chipotle “called its marketing voice ‘low-key and irreverent’ and said it relied primarily on word-of-mouth advertising and free food giveaways to spark customer interest.” One might point to their various Halloween promotions as an example of this.
Of course, as Chipotle’s advertising budget has gone up, they’ve used it in increasingly unique ways. Take, for instance, the ad campaign wherein various writers published seemingly random snippets of material on Chipotle packaging. Then there’s the aforementioned Farmed and Dangerous web series. They’ve even got their own documentary, which you can watch right now on Netflix. Above all though, one also has to give points to their music-driven spots “Back to the Start” and “The Scarecrow,” the latter of which in particular prompted resounding acclaim (as well as some controversy and criticism) after going viral.
Chipotle’s secret menu also puts it in a different class of fast food. And their management track has received attention for bending the typical rules of fast food service. Whether you think about it or not when you’re about to bite into that burrito, Chipotle’s corporate and societal culture is what got them where they are today. That and their actual food, of course.
Taco Bell might be better for late night, and Qdoba will work if there’s no Chipotle around. But Chipotle is in a class all its own, and the Internet has only helped solidify this. They’ve picked Chipotle as the reigning champion of the fast food world, making them somewhat of a meme, a joke, a fetish, an icon, and a larger cultural focal point. Sure, maybe Chipotle isn’t for you. But you should nonetheless expect to hear someone singing its praises in the near future.