Chipotle: The Hybrid Car of the Fast Food Industry

by Hillary Lindsay

There's no doubt that Chipotle is making an effort to build an environmentally sustainable business, with farm fresh ingredients from local farms, but their priorities come into question when you see their extensive and expensive marketing campaigns. Chipotle has spent millions on an innovative kind of marketing using entertainment to brand their values. Short films and now a Hulu comedy series, Farmed and Dangerous, are among their entertainment repertoire. However, while effective in relaying their message and making the viewers care, these entertainment ventures could be seen as a distraction from Chipotle's sustainability goals.

Chipotle isn't your typical fast food chain, which is what CEO Steve Ells intended when he founded the restaurant in Denver in 1993. Each of the now 870 plus restaurants are designed to a T so that customers have a clean and quick dining experience while eating fresh and sustainable ingredients that have been prepared with care. In a Nightline video clip on their website, Ells explains how it takes hours to prepare their food, with ingredients from the best farms which they've spent a great deal of time researching, but takes only a moment to serve (view video here). In this sense, their angle is "slow food, fast". It's important to Ells that his customers know where this "slow food" comes from and that they can see and taste its freshness. The importance of these factors is seen in the transparency of their open kitchens, their dedication to "Food with Integrity," as displayed on their website, and the entertainment they produce.

Chipotle's value-branding through entertainment began with short animated films, including Back to the Start (click to view) and Scarecrow (click to view). Each clip depicts the dominating power of industrial agriculture and ends with a return to the old ways of sustainable farming. Both of these clips pull at the heartstrings while portraying industrial agriculture as the horrifying villain and sustainable farming as the lovable hero. This emotional manipulation pushes viewers to see the issues with industrial food companies and, more importantly, to care.

The emotional sway of Chipotle's entertainment ventures takes a comedic turn in Farmed and Dangerous, a satire of industrial agriculture (watch on Hulu). The four (thirty-minute) part mini series on Hulu stars Ray Wise as Chuck Marshall, head of the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB)...which seems to be "I fib." The Bureau of fibbers is manipulating the image of their client, Animoil, and their creation of petroleum pellets, which are being fed to their factory cows. Their cover-up of exploding cows is exposed by the hero, Chip, who is the head of the Sustainable Family Farming Association. The satirical portrayal of industrial agriculture is both comical and horrifying with lines such as "Those people died from eating, not starving; that's progress" and "Industrial farming: improving nature the way God intended us to." However, the harshness of IFIB and Animoil is softened by the romantic relationship between Chip and Sofia, the daughter and employee of Chuck Marshall. Chip (metaphorically Chipotle) opens up her eyes to the reality of industrial agriculture and how it's necessary for the health of both humanity and the environment for us to go back to sustainable farming.

Aside from Chipotle's personification through the character Chip, Chipotle is only mentioned three times in the series: the first in a brief glimpse of an exploding Chipotle truck in an IFIB cover-up video; the second in a line when Chuck brags that he started a rumor that McDonald's owns Chipotle (in reality, McDonald's was formerly financially invested and is now not associated); and the third in Chuck's commercial trivia announcements. In these commercial breaks, Chuck's character announces that Chipotle is playing a trivia game for Farmed and Dangerous and is giving away prizes. Chuck urges us to play and get as many prizes as we can so we can put them out of business and "stick it to the Man" (Chipotle). These ironic attacks all portray Chipotle as the formidable foe of industrial agriculture.

Through entertainment, these marketing projects are feeding consumers a message and raising awareness in an affective manner but one must consider what's being compromised when Chipotle's focus is diverted. Each of the four episodes of Farmed and Dangerous cost $250,000 — totaling in at one million dollars for the series. That's a significant amount of capital that could've been spent on researching farms and increasing their sustainable supply. As mentioned by Ells in the Nightline video, "most" of their ingredients are sustainably farm fresh and ethically produced...most. For example, on their website Chipotle states:

"Currently, 40% of our beans are organically grown, which has a number of benefits including a reduction of more than 140,000 pounds of chemical pesticides since 2005. We have been increasing our use of organically grown beans over the last few years and may use even more in the coming years."

The journey to 100% will take time and money... but that is their ultimate goal. Yet, much time and money that could expedite that journey is being lost to marketing. Also, if 40% leads to 140,000 less pounds of chemical pesticides, then 100% would be 350,000!

In the meantime, with their partial sustainability, Chipotle has become the hybrid car of the fast food industry. It's a step in the right direction but still it is a car, in part, running on petroleum... like Animoil cows. However, their goals are valiant and could change the entire concept of fast food. With some re-prioritizing and dedication, this hybrid car could one day become a new and improved horse-drawn carriage of sustainability.


Hillary Lindsay is a NYC resident with an anthropology degree who explores culture through food by engaging in work on farms, in restaurants, and in shops, as well as through blogging and social media. Check out her blog at


Blog Category:  Restaurants