Our Chipotle Problem

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find the new East Colfax Tattered Cover location complete with a “Coming Soon… Chipotle” sign.

The Enemy

America’s new Starbucks is shrouded in foil. I’ll take the Mermaid any day, my friend, any day…

Even with the infinite word counts offered by The Internets, there’s still not enough space to catalogue my contempt for this, our absurdly overrated homegrown chain.

Let’s not dance around what I hope is a more nuanced analysis than what follows, but I gotta just spit it: I. Hate. Chipotle. I hate the food, I hate the branding, and I hate what it represents, both for Denver and the greater American palate.

But… but… I’m hoping beyond hope that all is not lost in the greater burrito landscape.

I realize, of course, that hating on Chipotle is not as contrarian as I’m making it out to be. I’m quite certain I’m not alone on this. And yet, the chain has a bizarre following of fan websites.

And let’s not forget the embarrassing gushfest Westword published two years ago that, quite frankly, could’ve been penned by the company’s PR staff.

Let me rattle off a few of the reasons I can’t stand the place: Their beans taste like ass; I’ve had matzo with more moisture than their tortillas; they even fuck up the rice. The rice! It’s always dry and lackluster, even with that lime cilantro non-action.

If you’re a vegetarian, there’s a pepper & onion combination and that’s IT. Forever.

If you’ve ever been to any of the tacquerias in San Fran’s Mission district it’s easy to understand how far off the mark Chipotle is in the greater burrito milieu. It’s like when you peel back the foil and bite in you taste less the rice or the meat than the branding team’s brow sweat.

My larger point here is the specter of specialized, semi-upscale chains of the Chipotle, Noodles – yeah, that place sucks too — genre and what they’re doing to our cuisine. Or for that matter, the sitdown chain restaurants, which aren’t even close to a bargain.

Every income bracket, almost every ethnic niche now has a chain component. Sometimes two or three. The bougie bakery, Panera? Steakhouses? Take. Your. Pick. Italian? There’s dumb and dumber. Don’t get me started on P.F. Chang’s.

I’m just waiting for Thai and Indian food to get an Applebee’s of their own and then, what’s left? Ethiopian?

It’ll happen, oh, it will. All these places are growing, pitting the greater American yearning for predictability against the risktaking inherent in the unknown. The restaurant business is cutthroat under the best of circumstances, but the chains are in the process of making the job of a midlevel indy restauratuer that much harder. Just like the larger world of retail, food is getting cleaved into a disturbing high end v. low end continuum that mirrors the income trends across the country. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s still depressing.

For a really interesting overview of this phenomenon, listen to Chowhound.com founder Jim Leff on Radio Open Source, an excellent NPR show out of Boston.

But back to Chipotle, since it’s, like, local. Let me make one thing clear; Being better than Taco Bell is not a virtue. That’s like getting honorable mention at a grade school field day and bragging about it past the age of 15.

There’s worse things then ending on a sour note, but just to offer a ray of hope and perhaps food for comments, permit me relay a quick anecdote.

A few years back I was reporting an admittedly lame story about a Starbucks decamping in the mountain hamlet of Woodland Park, just west of Manitou Springs. I was on the phone with a Starbucks flack who flat fucking refused to answer my question, which went something like this: Is it true Starbucks makes a concerted effort to open stores in communities that already have a successful gourmet coffee house? (Reason being that the indy one serves as a market barometer)

While the flack dodged the question like her name was Tony Snow, she did posit what I’m guessing is a classic Starbuckian talking point. It went something like this, and yeah, I’m fudging the numbers here: When Starbucks opened in the early eighties there were 200 independent coffeehouses in the US, now there’s 2,000. We created a mass market for gourmet coffee that didn’t previously exist.

Self-serving, but probably true.

Starbucks taught America to pay $4 for a coffee drink. Say what you will about the merits of that, but I buy their contention that they marketed the idea to the public at large. Now the exurban child who sipped Starbucks as a high school student moves to the city, discovers a place like, say, St. Mark’s, realizes it’s indeed the real deal and never goes back to The Mermaid again. Or not… but hopefully you can see my point.

Anyway, the question I’m positing is this: Despite the marketing muscle of Chipotle, will there be a burrito backlash resulting in a wave of independent competitors? I’d say the barriers to entry for a burrito place are smaller than a coffeehouse and certainly a fraction of a sitdown eatery. But will it happen? Or has it already? You tell me.

One last thing… lemme take a preemptive strike at the army of commenters who’ll surely chastise me for being a liberal whiner. First off, I’m a ranting liberal not a whining one, and more importantly my argument is actually conservative: I’m less dismayed by chain eatieries than I am by the public willingness to accept them as genius. I’m dismayed by the declining standards of our cuisine.

As one conservative famously asked, “Where’s the outrage?”

14 Comments so far

  1. AP (unregistered) on October 18th, 2006 @ 12:27 pm

    I like their food, as well as the food of their competition (illegal peetes, qdoba, baja fresh…) I don’t frequent there but they are great for a quick meal that is not very expensive, and much healthier than the food there owners put out (McDonalds).

    plus they serve organic food and have free burrito days.

    If it is so objectionable to your palate then why don’t you just eat somewhere else?

  2. John (unregistered) on October 18th, 2006 @ 2:55 pm

    One more fist raised to the sky in hatred of Chipotoplay.

    Can’t stand it. I like Lime. I like it in my beer, I like it in Jell-O, i like it in Kool aid. I DO NOT LIKE IT IN RICE, ON CHIPS…

    I had a free burrito buck or whatever. Even free I can’t eat one… Not a big fan of Qdoba, but when I work in Downtown, Illegal Petes I like :)

    YOu ain’t alone. Micky Dees and Chipotle, no bueno.

  3. hubs (unregistered) on October 19th, 2006 @ 11:10 am

    Seriously, is Denver metro blogging a giant complaint center? Dicker, you’ve wrote what, 5 posts? the first one saying all pizza in denver is crap and now this? this place should be informative and fun with an occasional critique (the post on the indoor sky diving the other day was great) but instead it sounds like a bunch of bitching an moaning (hey lady next to me, turn down your headphones! huh?). you didn’t even mention a good alternative besides the tacquerias in san fran. by the way both federal and central santafe are lined with wonderful tacquerias.

    here is my contribution: http://www.eyeheartbrains.com/

    for the record, i like chipolte and dislike starbucks (not sure what that means). also they are not owned by mcd’s. they are a publicly traded company owned by their stock holders, of which mcd’s does not own a majority.

  4. geekswhodrink.com (unregistered) on October 19th, 2006 @ 11:29 am

    AP: I don’t eat there. No offense, but I think you missed my point which is about market saturation and good branding substituting for good food.

    HUBS: The best bloggers and the best writers do nothing but complain. Anthony Lane, film critic for The New Yorker, most bitchy mofo ever. But he’s brilliant. I’m not comparing myself to him by any means, but if you want positive, feel good stories read a community newspaper or the local TV news.

    And… I did give a shout out to Tacos Jelisco, so there.

    In short: Bring on the complaining!

  5. Kath (unregistered) on October 19th, 2006 @ 12:49 pm

    Only problem I have with Chipotle is the same I have with Qdoba. TOO MUCH FREAKIN’ CILANTRO. IN EVERYTHING.

    There, I feel better now.

  6. kyle (unregistered) on October 20th, 2006 @ 12:41 pm

    I think you’re friggin’ crazy, and I agree with John. Look, if you don’t like it, don’t eat there. The ubiquity of Chipotle is nowhere near that of Starbucks, which begs the question: why do you even bring up the siren (she’s a siren, not a mermaid)?

    And, yes, they sold to McDonald’s, but they started here. As did Noodles. Colorado companies are good for Colorado (even if they sold out). And if you don’t like, don’t. eat. there.

    And don’t hate them for people’s lack of quality cuisine tastes… that’s the people’s fault. Don’t blame capitalism. What’s next, Dicker? Blame McDonald’s for making people fat? Jesus.

  7. geekswhodrink.com (unregistered) on October 20th, 2006 @ 12:59 pm

    Good lord. The point I was trying to make wasn’t as simple as “Chipotle sucks,” even though, yes, it does in fact suck. And to restate Kyle, because apparently I have to, I don’t eat there. But thanks for calling me crazy, always a sophisticated rhetorical tact.

    I was trying to hit on the issue of market saturation and the broader context of chains dominating the restaurant lanscape. In 2004 chain restaurants took a majority of the national market share away from the independents. Chipotle and Noodles are part of this. Applebee’s, Chilis, The Cheesecake Factory are an even bigger part. Taking something cool, homogenizing it, marketing it to a wider audience (which can actually be a good thing as I mentioned regarding Starbucks) and then running roughshod (sp?) over the market.

    Seriously, reread the post again and if you care to, listen to the interview on Open Source. If you really think I’d make an argument holding McDonald’s accountable for obesity, then maybe I was on crack and wrote something entirely different than what’s posted.

  8. James Rascazner (unregistered) on October 20th, 2006 @ 2:35 pm

    John, isn’t the root cause of your hatred of Chipotle based on your larger hatred of Denver itself? If it’s not that, and maybe I’m speaking out of turn here, but I happen to know that your hatred of Chipotle was born when you lost your lawsuit against them. You said you found a baby in your burrito and filed a lawsuit against them. A BABY, John? A BABY?!?! To be fair, you did say that it was a baby aborted in Chipotle’s back storeroom by one of their whorrish illegal immigrant workers, so it may not be that far fetched. Although the only “proof” you provided of the dead baby’s existence was a plastic wal-mart bag filled with your own feces. In your lawsuit you stated that you inadvertantly ate the dead baby, “on account of its deliciousness and culinary fetchingness”… Next time you endeavor to defame Denver’s finest eatery, tell the whole story, John. If that’s even you’re real name. Assholes are like elbows. …and macaroni.

  9. marina (unregistered) on October 21st, 2006 @ 10:11 am

    I always thought it was an accidental blend of plasticides and cumin but you’re saying it’s lime. Even if the secret charm of the SF Food Log is roaches and accumulated grease there really is no comparison to the enemy in tinfoil. But please don’t get Noel on this topic.

  10. darksandal (unregistered) on October 23rd, 2006 @ 1:11 pm

    Yeah, once you’ve had a Mission burrito of any quality (El Farolito was always my favorite — the great painting of the meat spit with halo in the back), Chipotle is an insult. And I would like to know what it is about corporate “gourmet” chains and that … non-flavor flavor. What is it. Panera. Noodles. Chipotle, etc. They have a taste that doesn’t taste like anything. Maybe it is plasticides. Anyway, my point is that what’s missing is the lard in the tortillas and beans. No lard, no flavor. Sorry veg boy.

  11. darksandal (unregistered) on October 23rd, 2006 @ 2:22 pm

    BTW, I hate people who don’t like complaining.

  12. VeggieCarnivore (unregistered) on October 25th, 2006 @ 10:20 am

    and it’s funny that a lot of those chains were winners in the Independent’s “Best Of” awards.

    i.e. Souper Salad over Gertrudes……sheesh!

    i.e. Noodle Bowl beat out Saigon Cafe…WTF?

    Obvioulsy they have never had food at any of those places, or THAT would have never reached print. Double SHEESH!!

  13. zoysia (unregistered) on October 27th, 2006 @ 10:21 am

    I hate chains, but there are chains and chains. I love cilantro and lime. I can’t get enough of it. I hate qdoba–it has no flavor and the service lines suck. Chipotle is local and also tries to buy local products–like Ranch Foods Direct. If I lived in San Fran or Santa Fe, I’d never eat there. But I don’t.

  14. Randomly Sane (unregistered) on November 6th, 2006 @ 10:28 am

    Ummmm…so forget Chipotle’s and do Qdoba’s….much better food…

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