Food For Thought: Chipotle Expands Literary Packaging Series

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First, let’s address the No. 1 question on the mind of any Chipotle fan: When are carnitas coming back? Well, the answer is, not as soon as you’d hoped. And it’s complicated.

But now let’s turn to news that will excite Chipotle customers: Its “Cultivating Thought” series of commissioned writings printed on its cups and carry-out bags—like the 21st century version of the stuff boomers used to read on the back of cereal boxes—will soon be returning.

Chipotle has commissioned best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer to return as curator of the series, with ten new and notable writers—including Paulo Coehlo, Neil Gaiman, Barbara Kingsolver, Augusten Burroughs and Amy Tan—creating original content to be featured on the packaging.

“Consumers are so used to being marketed at through any channel available. To give them something that isn’t marketing creates a nice emotional connection,” Chris Arnold, Chipotle communications director, told brandchannel. “We’ve called this an analog pause in a digital world, but it’s also just a break away from what consumer are generally bombarded with.”[more]

The first Cultivating Thought series, released last summer, included works by writer/producer Judd Apatow, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Toni Morrison, iconoclastic comedian Sarah Silverman and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

This time around, Foer presents a more globally diverse group of writers, including Brazilian, British, Dominican and Spanish writers, as well as American writers of Chinese, Polish and Indian descent. Headliners include actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, poet/novelist Julia Alvarez and author/biographer Walter Isaacson.

This second batch of authors addresses a gap that Chipotle experienced in the first series: getting more diversity, including Spanish-speaking authors, involved.

“That has been a bigger challenge than people realize because we can invite people to participate but we can’t make them participate,” Arnold said. “We’re trying to present a diverse set of voices in terms of point of view, but we’re a little hamstrung by who agrees to participate.”

Some critics would like to see Chipotle reach out even further, to writers who clearly don’t share the brand’s progressive point of view. They criticized Chipotle last summer concerning author George Saunders’ contribution, which included this “utopian” highlight: “Hope that, in the future, all is well, everyone eats free, no one must work, all just sit around feeling love for one another.”

“Some people called it communist propaganda,” Arnold recalled. “But for a highly profitable corporation like Chipotle, that seems like an utterly absurd takeaway.”

However, Arnold conceded that Chipotle isn’t shy about spreading its critical take on one particular slice of capitalism: Big Food. 

That was the whole point of The Scarecrow, its animated documentary about the alleged dangers of America’s mainstream food production system. “We’re apolitical as a company,” Arnold told brandchannel. “Our issues have mostly to do with food and the operation of our business, not with politics. We’re just consistent with our sourcing practices.”

Speaking of which, what about those carnitas? Chipotle cited problems with the reliability of a pork supplier as its reason for yanking the meat concoction from its menu recently and putting up apologetic little signs in its stores. Arnold said that the company is working hard on squeezing more pork out of existing suppliers, finding new suppliers and possibly expanding the cuts of meat considered for producing carnitas.

But, he added, “we’re not entirely sure when we’ll have that whole shortfall filled.” It may be that carnitas availability gets rotated through Chipotle stores and regions so that, for instance, at any one time about one-third of the US will be without carnitas. So pay attention and stock up.

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