Oh, Chipotle. It's no secret the former darling of the fast-casual restaurant industry has fallen on hard times. In 2016, food safety issues scared off consumers and messy restaurants and poor customer service have been pain points leading to poor sales.
But the company plans to open least 195 new restaurants in 2017, the Washington Post reported. As of Monday, it also has a new mission statement authored by founder and CEO Steve Ells that states the company will "focus on a goal that is both extremely ambitious and deeply meaningful: ensuring that better food, prepared from whole, unprocessed ingredients is accessible to everyone." (Emphasis Chipotle).
Chipotle may be a 23-year-old company, but its latest antics make it seem like a teenager. It's trying to break the rules but conform to unsubstantiated notions of cool. In a sense, its behaving like every character Anthony Michael Hall played in the '80s.
Chipotle insists it's better than established restaurants.
Chipotle has successfully rebelled against the establishment (aka greasy fast-food restaurants) and changed the way Americans approach fast food. Good! But the means to this end reeks of insecurity. Chipotle has capitalized Americans' distrust of GMOs without really putting in the work.
Chipotle's insistence on "food with integrity" and its non-GMO stance plays into consumer's tendency to mistrust GMOs despite the consensus of scientists that GMOs aren't unsafe. A large study of consumers in the United States, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and other countries found that 87% of consumers believe non-GMO foods are somewhat or a lot healthier than GMO foods, Food Navigator reported.
In truth, GMOs aren't bad for Chipotle customers. In a comprehensive 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, researchers concluded that genetically engineered crops are as safe as non-GMO crops.
The perils of pretending non-GMO is better.
Non-GMO may be the trend du jour, but it's basically synonymous with "boundary pushing" teens telling other teens what's cool. (But hey, who hasn't tried new things to look cool?)
"Labeling food as GMO-free is a simple way to create a health halo that leads consumers to see Chipotle in all sorts of other, 'feel good' ways — like healthier and more natural — that might not really be justified based on facts," Jonathon Schuldt, a Cornell University communication professor, said in a post on Cornell's site.
Chris Arnold, Chipotle's communications director, said to Mic in an email that Chipotle's model allows consumers to be able to cater to their personal needs. "Because our service model allows each customer to pick and choose exactly what, and how much, goes into their own individual order, it allows us to meet virtually any set of dietary restrictions or preferences," he said.
In reality, the average customer does not make healthy choices at Chipotle. An average Chipotle meal contains an average of 1,000 calories and over a day's worth of sodium, the New York Times reported in 2015. And misleading calorie counts on store signage are keeping customers in the dark about what's really in their orders, Mic previously reported.
The false promise of GMO-free and local sourcing
Chipotle is that friend who gets you to drink the spiked Kool-Aid (literal or proverbial) and then abruptly says they're craving Diet Coke. The company's GMO-free ideals are already crumbling; its new burger venture, Tasty Burger, sources conventionally raised meat for its first location in Ohio, Eater reported. Customers allegedly complained prices were too high.
The food isn't necessarily sourced hyperlocally, either. Case in point: Most of the avocados are grown in California and Mexico, Fast Company reported. Lettuce and other produce come from larger-scale suppliers and the chain even imports beef all the way from Australia. (Flying beef across the globe to the United States results in a mighty high carbon footprint.) The chain's outward-facing message and branding is just an image of cool (or, perhaps, environmentally and health conscious), while its practices hardly reflect a true concern. Chipotle talks the talk but does not walk the walk when it comes to ethically sourced food.
"Better food" needs a rebrand.
What does "better food" really mean? Chipotle is using empty words it knows will attract consumers. Serving "whole and unprocessed foods" is certainly a positive thing to strive for, but it needs to first come clean and to fulfill its past promises. If Chipotle really wants to change the world and be a mission-driven business, it needs to grow up and do some self-reflection.
A better food future starts with more transparency on where food comes from for each restaurant. Cool teen Chipotle can make its own rules about what it thinks is cool but to grow up, it needs to be transparent about the limitations of said rules, and it's actually got to follow those rules.
Or not. Ditch the GMO-free friends and blaze a new path that creates new guidelines for "responsible" eating. Because the coolest teens of all don't need to conform to dubious ideas about what is or isn't cool.