High Times At Fast Casual

Last week, Chipotle announced that their profits rose 30% in the fourth quarter of 2013, primarily due to increased customer traffic. Chipotle Mexican GrillIn a tough restaurant environment, this was stunning news: even Starbucks complained that December had been a weak month.

   Chipotle Mexican Grill was started by Steve Ells, a chef by trade, who opened his first restaurant in 1993. The chain has more than 1500 locations today. Their success highlights the popularity of the “fast casual” restaurant sector—eateries that offer an experience a notch or two above traditional fast food, while at the same time being quicker and cheaper than full-service restaurants.

   In large part, they succeed because they give customers more control over the dining experience. All the available ingredients are arrayed before you, and you have the ability to customize your own burrito, taco, salad or bowl; this differs from the usual fast food joint, where the preparation of menu items is etched in stone and special orders are difficult to execute. On top of that, they deliver a lot of food. If you have a normal appetite, it’s possible to eat there and go home with enough leftovers for another meal.

   Chipotle’s motto is “Food With Integrity,” and their marketing stresses many of the issues that are important to modern consumers—respect for the environment, green practices, and partnerships with sustainable farmers. For all of that, though, the food is no healthier than the fare at many fast food outlets. Order a burrito with steak, black beans, sour cream and salsa, and you meal will weigh in at 745 calories and 27 grams of fat; a similar item at Taco Bell contains 670 calories and 30 fat grams. Salads are better, but not much. As with virtually all fast food establishments, the levels of sodium are alarming.

   Still, Chipolte is perceived to be healthier, and it’s not news that perception equals reality. In fact, it can be good for you, but everything depends on your level of self-control—an elusive character trait that is frequently hard to nurture.


Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June. For more information, go to amazon.com

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