To begin this week, let me tell you what I hate about fast-food chain restaurants. Most people who claim to have some interest in food also mouth an almost reflexive loathing for these bottom-of-the-food-chain operations. But it’s rare for such people to have specific objections that go any deeper than “Oh, that food is gross and cheap and tawdry and I would never be caught dead at a McDonald’s . . . ” My objections are somewhat more specific.
I don’t dislike fast-food restaurants for the quality of their food. Not exclusively. I’ve eaten at plenty of fine restaurants where the stuff pushed across the pass rail was worse than anything served at KFC or Burger King. I’ve been to places that made me wish I could just give up and go to McDonald’s. But what I do hate is the blueprint itself. Making a burger (or a taco, or a plate of fried chicken) is an art. There are great burger-makers in the world, great taco-makers, and fryers of exceptional chicken, but these people tend to become great not by standardizing their process, but by being allowed to tinker. It also helps if the person working the grills actually cares a little about the final product, and not just about moving the maximum number of burger patties per hour. It helps if a cook feels valued for the ability to construct a good meal, and not just for being able to flip a thousand patties before his arm falls off.
The most dangerous thing about any chain operation is the power it has to homogenize a person’s understanding of what a thing is supposed to taste like. The reason I don’t go to Olive Garden is not because I have some classist notion of being better than the people who do. It’s not because I don’t trust the cooks or the food. It’s not even because the food tastes bad. In its way, Olive Garden makes food that tastes good to a lot of people—hence the hour-long waits in some suburban areas on a Friday night when, maybe, the little neighborhood Italian restaurant one strip mall down is cooking dinner for just three people.
No, what bothers me is that I know what real fettucine alfredo tastes like, and the dish served at Olive Garden tastes nothing like that at all. Looking at its full parking lot, one has to assume that a whole lot of people like eating cheese-flavored nursery-school paste over egg noodles. But for the most part, the reason they like it is that they’ve never had it done better anywhere else.
I also dislike chain restaurants for the uniformity—their proud insistence that eating at a McDonald’s in Maine is the same as eating at a McDonald’s in San Diego (or Hong Kong or Moscow). One of the reasons I love this country is because it is not a homogenized place. Because it has resisted every attempt at turning it into an easily demographized Flatland of sameness. When I first came to Seattle from Denver, I did not immediately run out and try to find something to remind me of Colorado; I went down to the International District and Pioneer Square, drove Aurora Avenue, and hung out in Ballard. I wanted Seattle to be Seattle and Denver to be Denver, and to not just know but feel the difference.
And then, when I was done with all that, I went to Chipotle.
Chipotle does everything wrong I mentioned above. It does everything that a normal fast-food chain restaurant would do to make me hate it like poison, but does it so well and with such enthusiasm that I long ago came to terms with the fact that—like In-N-Out, Smashburger, The Capital Grille, and Waffle House—Chipotle was just one of those places that transcended my generalized disgust for the large and the ubiquitous, and existed in its own universe where normal rules didn’t really apply.
The first Chipotle I ever ate at was in Colorado (where the chain was born), but I have since sucked down its burritos in Philadelphia and Rochester, in Chicago and Manhattan and Seattle. If someday I find myself living in London, Toronto, or Paris, I know I’ll tag the locations of the Chipotles there and chart my routes in advance. I do this partly because I feel that Chipotle is a little bit of Colorado I can carry with me wherever I go; that instinct for sameness and comfort that Ray Kroc banked on and made a fortune from is forgivable in this case, I think, if only because Chipotle’s version of sameness and homogeneity is so consistently good. But mostly I do it because, in a life spent eating tacos and burritos from one end of the country to the other and back again, chasing them down into Mexico and all the way to the Pacific Northwest, Chipotle still serves some of the best. It is dependable. It is always there. It is my fallback among fallbacks.
And just a decade and change ago, it completely revolutionized the fast-food industry.
The first Chipotle opened in 1993 in a former Dolly Madison ice cream shop near the University of Denver. It was founded by Steve Ells—a Culinary Institute of America grad and former sous chef at Jeremiah Tower’s Stars in San Francisco. While slogging the line at Stars, Ells would regularly bop off to the Mission District for cheap burritos of the big-ass variety—a style born in California and at the time fairly rare outside it.
He decided to borrow $85,000 from his dad to start a burrito restaurant in Denver. His plan was to use the money he made there to bankroll his white-jacket dreams of opening a fine-dining restaurant of his own. But things didn’t exactly work out that way. As the legend goes, he knew he’d need to move about a hundred burritos a day to make a profit. Within the first month, he was selling more than a thousand. His little burrito restaurant was making too much money to walk away from easily. Man was a chef, after all. And chefs are pragmatists.
This is not the part of the Chipotle story that interests me, though. What always got me was that the process by which burritos are made for the masses came together by accident. Ells never planned to change the way fast food got made, it just happened.
See, the location he picked, the old ice-cream shop, was not designed to be a restaurant. What Ells wanted was the standard kitchen-in-back/people-in-front design, but there just wasn’t room. What he had was a counter, a bit of space for galley equipment, a dining room, and not a lot of scratch for rebuilding. What he had, essentially, was the makings of a pretty good sushi bar, but not really a burrito restaurant.
So what he did (and has continued to do, in 1,000 stores and counting) is basically build himself a Mexican sushi bar with no stools. Customers come to the counter where all the food—meats and toppings, salsas, tortillas—is laid out for them to see. The prep is all done immediately behind the line, with nothing hiding it from civilians. Like in a sushi bar, you ask and the cooks work right in front of you, assembling tacos and burritos to your specifications. The cash register is at the far end. It might seem like nothing now. The setup is now as common as the drive-thru. But 20 years ago, this just wasn’t done. It was new and radical enough that it required a new term: Fast casual.
There are no freezers at Chipotle. No microwaves. No can openers, because Chipotle is about as farm-to-table as fast-food restaurants come. The ingredients each kitchen works with are generally made in-house and throughout the day (the carnitas and, in some cases, the beans are the exceptions), and they come from good sources. Niman Ranch supplies most of the meat (60 million pounds of it in 2009), all of it naturally raised. The company as a whole supports family farms and uses local produce when possible. Ells has always called himself a chef first, and ingredients have long been his obsession. Better ingredients, better products—as simple a mantra as there is.
And one that works. The carnitas burrito at Chipotle is a big thing—thick as the fat end of a baseball bat and almost as long as my forearm. Wrapped in foil, it has a substantial heft. If I hucked one at your head, you’d feel it. And what’s inside is almost always good. Among maybe a hundred meals at Chipotles around the country, I can count the disappointing experiences on one hand—moments when some step in the assembly-line production fell apart or when some test-marketed new product failed to please.
At the Chipotle on University Way, the line moves slowly. The dining room (all polished wood, corrugated metal, and urban minimalism, the same as almost every other Chipotle on earth) is a wreck of college kids and neighborhood folk, regulars and first-timers. Chipotle is new enough (17 years old, and even newer in the Puget Sound region) that there are still people out there who’ve never been and who come with a measure of suspicion, of doubt. I make my way to the counter and go with my standard order: a carnitas burrito with white rice flecked with bits of cilantro and gently, almost imperceptibly, touched with lime; black beans that could be the model of black beans everywhere; shredded romaine, which has forever pissed me off because it is chopped and therefore often chunky with the thick spines of the leaves; and cheese and sour cream. I go for the corn salsa with the little chunks of jalapeño, but tell them to go light on it—the texture of the corn can, in my opinion, throw off the overall composition of the burrito.
It is, as it almost always is, great—the tortilla chewy, the ingredients all hot and fresh and wedded as if made for each other. The pork has a slightly smoky, charry flavor, the rice a mild citric tang. Not every location does everything exactly the same. The salsas, for example, are hotter in Colorado than on the East Coast. The meats (chicken, pork, beef barbacoa) in Seattle-area restaurants seem, across the board, more peppery. It’s all basically as pervasive and homogenous and standardized as anything in the wildest dreams of Ray Kroc (for a time, Chipotle was actually partly owned by McDonald’s, but the House of Clown has since divested itself) and all those other primordial fast-food pioneers—but different in one vital way.
At McDonald’s, what they serve is a joke of a burger. A shadow. A whisper. A copy of a copy of a copy of something that was once great and all-American, but which now might just as well be made of Styrofoam and displayed in a museum as the engineered end of American cuisine.
But a Chipotle burrito still bears some resemblance to what it originally set out to copy: the Mission-style burrito. It has taken that core product and improved it, broadened it, made it available to everyone. The difference is that when I eat at Chipotle, I can feel that connection to actual food, an actual place. But when I eat at McDonald’s (or Olive Garden, Taco Bell, or KFC), all I feel is distance, the grumble of human machinery, and shame.