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A Sticky Point for Chipotle

March 18, 2014

Chipotle and I go way back. No, I haven’t written about the restaurant for a long time. Mostly because I was concerned that the FLB was becoming little more than a love letter to the restaurant.

For the record, I still think it’s an embarrassment to the restaurant industry as a whole that a fast casual burrito shop can turn out food made from better quality ingredients than most fancy establishments put on a plate costing three times as much.

Granted, there have been some downsides in the restaurant’s growth. I remember when each location made its own food by toasting the spices every morning and braising everything in house. But I understand the need for centralization. Plus the brand’s growth has enabled it to have more of an impact on farming and meat production overall.

“Food with Integrity” has always been a goal. It’s not a destination. The company has been improving the integrity of its ingredients year over year. Moving to more organics, buying from more local farms during the growing season, and increasing the availability of sustainable meat across the country. I was thrilled when it finally brought on soft corn tortillas. And I’m encouraged about its labeling of GMOs and its commitment to getting these ingredients out of its food. The work it has been doing is amazing. Truly. If I were a military man, I might be inclined to salute in the direction of Chipotle HQ in Denver.

There’s just one problem.

If you follow me on Twitter, this won’t be a surprise. Last night I hashed a lot of this out with ChipotleMedia. But while Twitter is great for bringing up issues, it’s not so great for conveying the nuance of an argument. So today I’m going to give it try with as many characters as it takes.

Soda.

There are some people who think that soda is devil juice. That’s not me. I enjoy soda, but I endorse the old-fashioned notion that it’s liquid candy. You know, because it’s full of sugar. In fact, it’s so full of sugar that you probably wouldn’t be able to swallow the stuff if it weren’t also pumped full of acids to make it palatable. But that’s neither here nor there.

Soda by itself doesn’t cause obesity. However, drinking soda like it was water might not be so good for human beings. Thanks to decades of advertising and active selling techniques in which soda companies have quite literally invested billions of dollars, most Americans don’t think twice about sucking down a soda as a routine part of a meal.

That part is flabbergasting to me on its face. Think about how ridiculous it would be to eat a lollipop in between bites of a burger. Seriously. That’s what this is.

Oh, and by and large, soda has also changed over time. Instead of being made with cane sugar it’s now mostly made with high fructose corn syrup. Soon it may also contain Sweetmyx, but low and zero-calorie sodas are a much bigger bag of worms. One also shouldn’t forget that fountain soda also contains dimethylpolysiloxane as an antifoaming agent, which the Food Babe pointed out is also used in Silly Putty. But for the sake of today’s argument, I should mention that HFCS is one of those products that is synthesized from GMO corn.

So what does this have to do with Chipotle again?

Do you remember how I saluted the brand for working to get rid of the GMO ingredients in its food? Well, it is remarkably silent about the GMOs in the sodas that many of its customers order without even giving them a second thought.

Actually, when I pressed ChipotleMedia on it Chris Arnold offered an array of excuses:
– “We already offer options to soda”
– “We don’t make the sodas”
– “There’d be a mutiny”

And those are all totally true.

But here’s the thing. Way back when Chipotle was just starting out, it didn’t have any of these organic ingredients or commitments against GMOs. And at that time the soda fountain was a lot more innocuous. After all, it’s a ubiquitous feature in all fast casual eateries, and pretty much every restaurant everywhere.

Today, this same piece of hardware seems to fly in the face of everything Chipotle claims to believe. Sure, there are the GMOs, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are the artificial colors, artificial flavors, strange anti-foaming agents, and artificial sweeteners (including some you might not expect).

Say what you will about soda, GMOs, or synthetic chemical additives. But who can say the Chipotle soda fountain is not an affront to their “Food with Integrity” ethos? Chipotle helps to line the pockets of Big Soda, which in turn is propping up the GMO corn market. But more importantly, what is the point of feeding people clean food if you’re just going to give them dreck to wash it down?

Where’s the integrity in that?

Forget about the hard work of sourcing a supply chain that can guarantee non-gmo corn to be made into Chipotle’s chips, tortillas and salsa. I’m fairly certain that the brand could have a larger and more immediate impact by simply shutting off its soda fountain.

Sure, that might cause a revolt. I get that. People love their soda. Even those who eat at Chipotle. It’s a big country. So the change doesn’t need to be so immediate. There are plenty of strategies that the brand could use to roll out such an initiative gradually.

1) Push water
There is a tyranny to the soda fountain. I can’t quite explain it, but I think it has something to do with conditioning. The consumer thought process is like, “I’m in a line, I’m ordering food, I should get a soda to wash it down.” But a restaurant like Chipotle is in a great position for consumer education. More people pass through its doors every day than read Mother Jones magazine. Sorry, MoJo. I love, you, but it’s true. An argument printed on the basket liner, cup or brown bag about water’s supremacy over soda would go a long way. To close the loop, instead of asking what the customer would like to drink, the cashier could suggest, “Cup for water.” And instead of the water tap being a sad little lever on the “lemonade” fountain, it could get a dedicated spot of its own.

2) Call conventional soda to task
Just label it. Make sure the diet soda where the fountain version is made with Sodium Saccharin is clearly labeled on the machine. And when Chiptole transitions to being GMO free, perhaps it can put a sign on the soda machine reading, “The only GMOs you’ll find here.”

3) For those who have to have their soda
Sell it, but put Big Soda behind the counter. Sell Coke in glass bottles from Mexico that are made with real sugar. This shouldn’t be a punitive measure. This should be about bringing Chipotle’s beverage program in line with its ideals. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

So what’s the upside?

Soda’s supremacy is on the wane. Soda manufacturers have known this for years. That’s why they themselves have diversified their businesses in the face of declining sales. It’s only a matter of time before some brave restaurant decides to walk away from Big Soda entirely. It should be Chipotle.

Think of the national media coverage. The story is one of a brand putting its integrity over its profits. Much like the push CVS recently got when it dropped cigarettes from its stores. The media fervor over the second company to adopt such a change will be much less dramatic.

Chipotle has always been a leader in this space. It’s disheartening to see the brand dragging its heels on an issue that it should be owning. And as the rest of the restaurant’s food improves, the presence of its soda fountains starts to cast doubt on how much “food with integrity” is a guiding principle versus just a clever marketing slogan.

For what it’s worth, I firmly believe it’s that former, and will patiently wait for Steve Ells to see the light. He’s proven that he can change how consumers think about food. And I can’t imagine he feels great about being beholden to Big Soda.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2014 12:21 pm

    Why not have adult sodas like Gus available as well.

    • -R. permalink
      March 18, 2014 1:36 pm

      “Adult soda”? Yup, I call it “beer”.

  2. Randy K permalink
    March 18, 2014 12:34 pm

    let me start out by saying that i’m not a soda drinker anyway – but – i always get a free cup for water (they have a water fountain in the soda machine) when i order there. no, they don’t push the free water option (the “free” cup costs them a couple cents, i’m sure) – after all, they are in the market of making money… but i’d rather pay a couple bucks for some homemade iced tea or even one of their tasty margaritas to wash down my tacos than some syrupy, chemical-laden crap that comes out of a machine.

    • March 19, 2014 1:40 pm

      Everything is made of chemicals. You are made of chemicals. Meat is made of chemicals. Rice is made of chemicals. The entire world is chemical-laden because it’s all made of chemicals.

  3. March 18, 2014 8:26 pm

    Problem with offering tap water in most restaurants is that it tastes just this side of vile. Albany water (for example) is fairly good but it’s hard, and often you can taste the pipe scale- when you add ice made from the same water it doesn’t help.

  4. Josh K. permalink
    March 18, 2014 11:15 pm

    Time to switch over to Moe’s. Salsa bar and grass fed beef. Bigger burritos, choice of beans, TONS of chips, and it’s cheaper. And there is better background music.

  5. March 19, 2014 1:39 pm

    You’re forgetting that soda is a major profit center for fast food outlets. A few pennies’ worth of syrup becomes a few dollars’ worth of income.

  6. albanylandlord permalink
    March 22, 2014 1:52 pm

    What Chipotle does is fantastic, and I am a fan. The trick for organizations like them is to push the envelope while not being so far out of the norm that 1) people still want to shop there and 2) you can make enough money doing it to stay open and keep pushing the envelope.

    Pushing too hard on soda fails on both counts. Not offering soda falls too far out of the norm today. A lot of people who eat at Chipotle order soda and some portion of them would stop going if they can’t get their soda. They will be annoyed and not really understand why they are being denied.

    The second count is even harder – in addition to losing customers over this (probably without really gaining any to offset the lost ones), they would be losing a lot of money from their hugely profitable soda sales. Money that is essence goes to subsidize your GMO-free foods. Would Chipotle be able to raise their food prices 50 cents across the board? I doubt it

    I am a fan of offering “healthier” sodas and the “Only GMOs here” sign would be great and fitting in with their culture, but actively pushing water would probably break their business model.

  7. Susan L permalink
    March 27, 2014 10:19 am

    I have never eaten at Chipotle, even though one recently opened up less than a mile down the road on which I live. I avoid all fast food as I am trying to raise my children by avoiding as much HFCS, artificial colors, and factory meat as possible. Which means places like Chipotle lose out just because of that soda fountain. Would Chipotle lose some customers if they eliminated the soda fountain? You bet. Would they gain respect and new clients? I know I would be willing to pay more and make a concerted effort to eat their “Food with Integrity.” I believe there is enough of a movement toward local, healthier food in various parts of the country to sustain this.

  8. barefootallen permalink
    February 27, 2017 9:15 pm

    I no longer drink sodas, I switched to kombucha.
    Before the switch it was Mexican coke, Boylens cream soda, Jones soda and Jarritos. There are many cane sugar sodas to choose. There are also many probiotic drinks too.

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