Secrets Chipotle doesn't want you to know

Chipotle first opened its doors in 1993 in Denver, Colorado, and was a near-instant hit. It wasn't long before new locations appeared, and the expansion has continued ever since. An example of the so-called "fast casual" restaurant style, sitting somewhere between fast food and full table service, Chipotle has worked hard to build a reputation around offering healthier food made with more ethical ingredients, all of which is underlined by its slogan "food with integrity" — and it seems to be working. Since opening that first location in 1993, Chipotle has expanded to over 2,000 locations and an annual revenue in 2015 of $4.5 billion. Unfortunately, while everything looks shiny on the outside, there are some pretty large cracks underneath that Chipotle would rather you didn't know about.

The design is minimalist because it's all they could afford

Chipotle is often praised for the minimalist chic of its design, where spare but considered interior architecture mimics spare but considered ingredients. Though that makes a great story for the magazines, it's actually just a load of rubbish. When Steve Ells opened his first restaurant in 1993, he did it with minimal funding, so he wasn't in a position to splurge on interior designers. Instead he went to a local hardware store and cobbled together whatever he could from what he found there. Luckily for him, the spare industrial aesthetic never seems to go out of style for the burrito-craving demographic, and now other chains appear eager to recreate the success. Unfortunately, since desperately doing the best you can with a limited budget is not a commonly recognized interior design process, they may end up paying quite a lot for a bad copy of cheap.

Chipotle was sued by a disabled man

The interior design might be impressing design critics, but you can bet they all have full use of their legs. Because for those people who have to order while sitting in a chair, the perspective might be just a little different. At least it was for San Diego man Maurizio Antoninetti, who sued Chipotle for violating the rights of the disabled. Mr Antoninetti was unhappy that when he ordered his food from his wheelchair, the wall in front of the counter was too high for him to see over and he was unable to choose ingredients for his order or see his food being made. Bizarrely, although Chipotle spent thousands of dollars fighting the accusations in court, and in the process forced Mr. Antoninetti to tally up $550,000 in legal fees, the restaurant nevertheless went ahead and quietly retrofitted the offending restaurants with lower walls. And that was years before the verdict even came back. No one likes to admit when they're wrong, but fighting an unnecessary lawsuit for five years to avoid it has to be a record of some sort.

Chipotle left Latino voices out of its marketing

You might be forgiven for thinking that a restaurant called Chipotle Mexican Grill would be interested in promoting Mexican or Latino culture, but recent events might suggest otherwise. Chipotle recently decided to bring some literary flavor to the dining experience they provide and commissioned 10 writers and creatives to produce new works that would grace Chipotle's bags and cups. So far, so good! Just bringing a little cultural enlightenment to the indigestion-riddled lunch break of an unhappy office worker. What else would you need? How about even a single Mexican or Latino writer? For a restaurant making a fortune by imitating Mexican cuisine, you'd think hiring Mexican artists to participate in a promotional campaign would be a no-brainer. But it seems Chipotle only cares about the parts of Mexican culture people want to shove in their faces, and the "Mexican" branding is just a mask to promote that. Chipotle is to Mexico what Disney's Magic Kingdom is to reality.

Chipotle is being sued for wage theft

In order to turn a profit, a company has to make more money than it spends. One of the biggest expenses for companies like Chipotle is the wage bill, but thanks to minimum wage laws there isn't much that can be done to reduce that … you would think. Not so for Chipotle, according to almost 10,000 employees across the USA, who have joined a lawsuit that is claiming Chipotle is guilty of wage theft. The accusation states that managers at Chipotle restaurants would require workers who were working the closing shift to clock out at a certain time, but then continue working unpaid until they were given permission to leave. In fact at many of the company's restaurants, the process is automated, with workers being automatically clocked out at a set time whether or not they're finished working. Chipotle denies the allegations, claiming the problem lies with a few managers who don't follow policy. No matter what Chipotle might claim its policy to be, with this many complaints surfacing it's a good time to remember that actions speak louder than words.

Secret menu items turned out to be bad bacteria

If you are a regular reader of food websites, you're aware of the concept of secret menu items: food items that are available but that don't appear on the menu. But at you don't always get a choice about it at Chipotle. For a lot of customers across the country, the secret menu items that turned up on their plates were E. coli, norovirus, and salmonella. In 2015, Chipotle had to temporarily close 43 locations in the Pacific Northwest to control an E. coli outbreak that was traced back to its restaurants by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The problem cropped up in other states, and more than 45 people became ill, with 16 being hospitalized. In another incident in December 2015, 80 Boston College students also became ill after being infected with norovirus at a single Chipotle location in Boston, which was briefly closed for cleanup. And an outbreak of salmonella that infected at least 45 people in Minnesota in 2015 was linked to 17 Chipotle restaurants in the state. Chipotle has shown it isn't afraid to do things differently, but it has to get a grip on the unwanted ingredients to keep customers coming back.

Criminal investigation launched over California norovirus outbreak

After the unfortunate series of foodborne illness outbreaks linked to Chipotle restaurants in the second half of 2015, it turns out the former customers that found themselves getting up close and personal with a toilet bowl weren't the only ones to take notice. In an unprecedented move, the Department of Justice decided to open an investigation into a single Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California, that was linked to an outbreak of Norovirus that affected 234 people. A month before the investigation was announced in January 2016, Chipotle was served with a federal grand jury subpoena regarding the Simi Valley outbreak. Department of Justice investigations are typically aimed at entire companies or their executives, so an investigation of a single restaurant is highly unusual. But according to a source quoted in the Denver Post, the decision to launch a full investigation could indicate that something "unusual and egregious" came to light. Unfortunately, despite the investigation being announced at the beginning of 2016, very little information has since been released and the subject appears to have fallen off the public radar. You can bet Chipotle would be happy for it to remain that way.

Chipotle hasn't always lived up to its company motto

If, for some reason, you need further evidence that Chipotle doesn't really give a hoot about Latino immigrants or low-wage employees, look no further than its battle with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). While Chipotle appears to make great efforts to get meat from ethically raised animals and find local sources for its ingredients, when it comes to the workers who actually harvest the food Chipotle buys, Chipotle's efforts fall a little short of exemplary. For years, the CIW tried to get Chipotle to sign its Fair Food Program in support of Florida's tomato pickers. The program would require them to pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes to provide a wage increase and ensure they only buy from growers who follow a code of conduct that supports workers' rights.

Unfortunately, even though McDonald's and Taco Bell didn't take long to sign up and despite ongoing protests and campaigns, Chipotle held out. The agreement was eventually signed in 2012, accompanied by great fanfare on the part of Chipotle (which is never slow to celebrate evidence of its "integrity," no matter how long it takes to arrive). But in the time it took for Chipotle to get with the program, thousands of seasonal workers were left to struggle: working long shifts for extremely low wages and living in expensive but rundown slum housing. It's no surprise Chipotle worries more about pigs than farm workers: the pigs actually come into contact with the customers. Since the farm workers are effectively invisible, it's all too easy for Chipotle to sweep them and their concerns back under the carpet.

Chipotle dumps its local suppliers after food safety issues

Hordes of vomiting customers and the value of the company's stock are not the only victims of the foodborne illness scandal that first hit Chipotle in 2015. The collection of small-scale "local" producers the company has made so much advertising mileage on can now be added to that list. By buying a portion of its ingredients from local sources, Chipotle sought to gain from the growing "locavore" movement that espoused locally sourced food over well-traveled food. Unfortunately that decision was a double-edged sword for Chipotle given that smaller producers have a harder time meeting the company's new food safety requirements and may have been a contributing factor in the various outbreaks that plagued Chipotle locations across the country. Now in an attempt to get a better grip on food safety, Chipotle is ditching a bunch of its smaller suppliers and moving to centralize some of its food preparation activities to gain more control. However by creating a very public stain on the face of the local food movement, Chipotle hasn't just damaged the suppliers it's dumped. Because other chains will now think twice before going local, they have also thrown a huge tortilla-wrapped wrench into the future of the whole industry.

Chipotle pays out $8 million after manager sexually assaults teenage employee

Working in foodservice is not an uncommon first step on the career ladder for young people, and it can often provide useful experiences and training that will impact the rest of their working lives. Unfortunately for one 16-year-old in Houston, her on-the-job-training contained extra things she definitely didn't need. Just weeks after starting her new job, a 26-year-old supervisor started making moves, bumping into her frequently, and making comments about her body. Pretty soon the sexual contact and grooming led to the supervisor having unprotected sex with the underage teenager on a regular basis, including behind the restaurant dumpster, in the restroom, and in a nearby park. You can probably thank your deity that Chipotle still has customers coming in so he was never able to do it on the food counter.

The victim's mother reportedly tried to intervene by going to the restaurant manager, but instead of jumping to the defense of a vulnerable employee, he did nothing and is even accused of trying to cover it up and discouraging the mother from going to the police. And when it came to the trial, Chipotle did no better. Instead of accepting the guilt of its employee, Chipotle tried to frame the criminal activity as a consensual relationship. But since a 16-year-old cannot legally consent to sex in Texas, it only took the jury a few hours to decide in the victim's favor and award her a payout from Chipotle of nearly $8 million. The actual perpetrator was not present for the court case, having long since fled to Mexico to avoid trial.

Chipotle dabbled with illegal workers in Minnesota

In a confusing and bizarre sequence of events in Minnesota in 2010, it was revealed that Chipotle was employing hundreds of illegal workers. When the controversy came to light during an audit by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 450 workers, comprising more than a third of Chipotle's Minnesota workforce, were promptly fired. According to a report by Reuters, there was evidence that managers in Chipotle restaurants were fully aware of the illegal status of at least some of those employees. However, the company made no effort to address them until an audit came around, at which point the workers were immediately ditched. The results of the Minnesota audit inspired additional audits of Chipotle's D.C. and Virginia operations, which resulted in more employees being cut loose. That Chipotle is so willing to turn a blind eye to illegal workers, especially those from south of the border, should not be surprising: having hardworking Latinos behind the counter can only enforce Chipotle's brand image, and if it saves money on labor costs as well, then so much the better.

Chipotle has been accused of fearmongering for profit

In the face of constant corporate self-promotion and sales hype, it can be hard to distinguish accepted reality from convenient lies. Restaurants will say whatever they can get away with if it helps them sell more food, and Chipotle is as guilty of this as any of them, according to the Washington Post. In late April 2015, Chipotle announced that its entire menu would be GMO-free. This might seem like an insignificant declaration, but when GMOs are a scientifically supported path toward sustainably feeding a growing world population, casually throwing a wrench in the works is an ethically questionable act, to put it mildly. As the Post points out, Chipotle is engaging in baseless negative propaganda against GMOs in the pursuit of profit. With all the misinformation about GMOs flying around, Chipotle can neatly attach its fearmongering marketing ploy onto the back of its standard (and oft-repeated) elevator pitch about food ethics and sustainability. But the truth is that without the continued use and development of GMOs, there's no sustainable way to prevent a lot of people dying from hunger in the not-very-distant future. But millions of deaths from hunger don't count as a loss in the end-of-year financial figures, so there's really no reason for Chipotle to care.

Chipotle sued for false advertising over 300-calorie chorizo burrito claim

In 2016 Chipotle tried to recover its flagging popularity by introducing the first new ingredient since 2014: chorizo. So far so good, right? Everyone loves a bit of spicy chorizo. Unfortunately alongside the "toasted cumin, chipotle peppers, and three types of paprika" put in the new temptation, Chipotle also added a generous handful of "meh," and a surprising amount of coarse ground lies. Or that's what's being claimed in a recent lawsuit. That's because in Chipotle's in-store advertising appeared to claim that a burrito made with the new ingredient would contain just 300 calories. Unfortunately, if you tot up the proposed ingredients using Chipotle's own calculator, the actual number comes out at 1,055 calories. Chipotle responded to customers on Twitter with a half-baked sorry/not sorry response, saying the claimed 300 calories was for just the chorizo and nothing else and that the banner was unintentionally confusing. If that's true then Chipotle has some serious quality control issues in its design department, and someone definitely needs to get fired. However considering how desperate Chipotle is to lure back their customers, it's hard to not to come to the far less-flattering conclusion that Chipotle cares more about its bottom line than the outline of its customers' bottoms.

Chipotle was created to fund another restaurant

Founder Steve Ells has quite the cuisine credentials. When he graduated from a pretty impressive food school and spent two years serving with an important person in a white hat, he looked all set to carve new roads in the American fine dining scene. Then he opens a fast food … sorry, a "fast casual" restaurant, that serves burritos to hungry students and hipsters. So what went wrong? Nothing actually. It was all part of the plan. Except the part Chipotle was supposed to play was taking money off hungry students and funneling it into Ells' next project, a fine dining restaurant. The fine dining part never happened, but the money part is working beautifully. Ells no longer has any interest in opening a fine dining restaurant, and you can't really blame him. When the cheap nag you bought to get from A to B turns out to be a cash cow instead, why would you keep riding?

McDonald's owned 90 percent of Chipotle but sold it off

Chipotle has worked hard to set itself apart from more "traditional" fast food restaurants. It constantly plays the ethical card, keeps its menu simple, and doesn't do drive-thrus or breakfast. But if it wasn't for fast food, specifically McDonald's, Chipotle probably wouldn't be the corporate success it is today. Not very long ago, McDonald's owned as much as 90 percent of Chipotle, and invested around $340 million in the restaurant between 1998 and 2005. This enabled Chipotle to grow from around 14 locations in 1998, to almost 500 when McDonald's decided to call time on the relationship in 2006, having decided that Chipotle was distracting attention from its core brand. Unfortunately for McDonald's, Chipotle continued to grow and the decision to part ways ended up costing them a colossal amount of money. And although Chipotle's decision to accept investment from the golden arches helped it achieve astonishing growth, it also revealed the price of their ethics. Chipotle might claim to hold the ethical high ground, but if you have a giant wad of cash to invest, it won't expect you to join the high ground.

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