20 January 2016

The Self-Hating Burrito Billionaire

By Julie Gunlock

Chipotle CEO Steve Ells has been in defensive mode since Chipotle sickened hundreds of customers over the holiday season thanks to a massive E. coli and norovirus outbreak in several of their stores. Ells has done a mea culpa tour of morning news programs, pleading with customers to return. He’s promised to improve the chain’s food safety practices and just last week, boldly announced the early February closure of all locations in order to provide guidance to employees about company-wide changes.

No doubt Steve Ells would rather spend his time doing just about anything else. Certainly, it’s no fun having to say sorry over and over again. But something tells me, Ells isn’t that passionate about the fast food restaurant he helms. And perhaps that’s part of Chipotle’s problem.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ells had far more illustrious dreams of restaurant glory. He wanted to open fine dining establishments. Yet, like an art school graduate who takes a desk job to pay the bills and a decade later is still at the same desk, one can’t help but sense the regret and embarrassment Ells feels for scarring America’s landscape with yet another massive fast food franchise.

You can sense Steve Ellis’ discomfort with Chipotle in interviews about the restaurant’s success. In a 2013 Huffington Post story, writer Joe Satran explains “Ells had hoped Chipotle would run itself, allowing him to work on his fine-dining restaurant.” Ells told Satran “I remember feeling a little guilty every time I opened a Chipotle…I felt guilty because I wasn’t following my true passion. But that eventually went away. And I realized that this is my calling.”

Perhaps he really has come to feel that growing the Chipotle empire is his true calling, or perhaps he’s found that raking in millions is satisfying enough and adequately softens the blow of lost dreams. And Ells isn’t just pocketing one or two million. In 2013, Ells made $25 million. In 2014, he made almost $30 million. That’s well over 1,000 times what the average Chipotle worker takes home each year.

No one should begrudge Ells a handsome payday. After all, he runs a very successful chain of fast food restaurants that employs around 53,000 people. Yet there is something grating, even hypocritical, about how Chipotle markets itself—as the anti-fast-food fast food restaurant—particularly when you consider the franchise’s path to success that created Ells’s millions.

In 1998, the archetypal fast food restaurant—McDonalds—invested in Chipotle, which then consisted of only 14 stores in the Denver area. By the time McDonalds divested of the burrito chain in 2006, McDonald’s had invested nearly $350 million and had helped Chipotle grow to over 1,000 locations nationwide.

Despite this generosity, you won’t find nary a mention of McDonalds on Chipotle’s website (go ahead, use the search function. It results in zero findings). It makes sense that Chipotle would keep this inconvenient fact quiet considering its marketing strategy of railing against the very thing McDonalds embodies—Big Food.

In 2013, Chipotle even produced a glossy short film about the dangers of Big Food, which according to Chipotle’s website, shows “…a dystopian fantasy world, [where] all food production is controlled by fictional industrial giant Crow Foods. Scarecrows have been displaced from their traditional role of protecting food, and are now servants to the crows and their evil plans to dominate the food system.”

Of course, Chipotle sets itself up as the antidote, which will save the food system from this dystopian nightmare.  The irony is that Chipotle is only around to supposedly transform the food landscape because of the support of the very food company Ells thinks is ruining Americans’ palate in the first place.

Yet McDonald’s earns its customers the same way that Chipotle does: by providing satisfying food at a good price. Chipotle’s preening about using GMO-free and organic ingredients overlooks that study after study shows GMOs are just as healthy and safe as non-GMO and that organic is no more nutritious than non-organic. And for all Chipotle’s claims that their food is better, Chipotle didn’t meet the basic goal of providing food that’s safe to eat.  Chipotle’s better-than-thou attitude needs to be expunged from the restaurant chain along with the bacteria.

Ells needs to get over his snobbery and get Chipotle back to focusing on the basics of food safety and providing customers with food they enjoy at a good price.

Julie Gunlock writes about food for the Independent Women’s Forum.