The Age-Old Question: Is Chipotle Considered Fast Food?

Have you ever been enjoying your go-to meal at Chipotle and wondered, "Am I eating fast food right now?" (Well, at least you're pondering the question now.) There's something about Chipotle that walks the line between fast food and something ever-so-slightly more upscale. It's not quite a sit-down restaurant chain like Applebee's, nor is it among the ranks of classic fast food like McDonald's. Instead, Chipotle feels like something else entirely. On that note, the fact that folks can't agree on what kind of restaurant Chipotle really is may be one of the reasons why it isn't as popular as it used to be.

The dictionary defines fast food as "of, relating to, or specializing in food that can be prepared and served quickly" or "designed for ready availability, use, or consumption and with little consideration given to quality or significance." Chipotle mostly fits this definition — other than the fact that it does boast higher quality ingredients than the average fast food joint. Still, consumers are split about what kind of chain restaurant Chipotle qualifies as, and with a major drop in stock over the last decade, it's clear that the confusion around Chipotle's niche is costing the brand.

A fast casual label seems to fit Chipotle best

Ultimately, there's no one true answer to the question of whether or not Chipotle is actually fast food. The managing director of GlobalData, Neil Saunders, told CNBC, "I think Chipotle is much more fast food-like than casual dining, especially in urban locations where lots of people treat it as a grab-and-go option." This notion suggests that  Chipotle's identity depends on how you use it. Still, there's one main problem with referring to Chipotle as a fast food chain: It's much more expensive than restaurants that we typically think of as fast food. The average purchase from Chipotle is $11, about $4-8 more than the average purchase from other fast food restaurants. Consequently, if someone in the mood for fast food considers Chipotle to be part of that category, they may opt for another, cheaper fast food option. 

"Fast casual" is a newer restaurant category that's gaining popularity. It's so popular, in fact, that some restaurants that are known as sit-down restaurants, like Buffalo Wild Wings, are planning to move to a model that's more focused on the speed and ease required of on-the-go eating. Of all the options, it seems that Chipotle best fits into this category, as customers do think of it as a quick option for grabbing a bite, but it's not quite the cheap, cookie cutter experience of a McDonald's drive-thru. It seems that rather than finding its niche, Chipotle should instead commit to the niche it already fits into.