By Pete Williams
Chipotle Mexican Grill is celebrating its 20th anniversary on Saturday by kicking off a contest that awards winners with a burrito a week for the next 20 years.
That’s 1,040 burritos or almost as many as I’ve consumed since 2005.
That was the year Chipotle came to the Tampa Bay area and as the chain has grown – to 1,450 restaurants and counting – it has opened outlets increasingly closer to my home. These days, I only have to travel five minutes to what previous was a KFC.
Chipotle (CMG as its known on Wall Street and, full disclosure, I’m a shareholder) has changed the concept of fast food and, perhaps, the way America eats.
I’ve dropped 20 pounds since 2005, going from 175 to 155 – and while there are multiple reasons (obstacle racing, triathlon, stand-up paddleboarding, green smoothies, and writing Core Performance fitness books with Mark Verstegen), the common thread has been eating roughly four times a week at Chipotle.
Steve Ells, who launched Chipotle on July 13, 1993 in Denver with the help of an $85,000 loan from his father, had gone to culinary school and planned one day to open a high-end restaurant. He figured it was more financially prudent to first launch an eatery with mass appeal, applying gourmet touches to the burrito restaurant formula he had seen in San Francisco.
Making tasty, relatively inexpensive food served fast likely would have been enough for Chipotle to succeed. But Ells insisted on providing “Food with Integrity,” using whenever possible meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones, dairy from cows raised without the use of synthetic hormones, and sourcing organic and local produce when practical.
I probably wouldn’t be eating at Chipotle much were it not for Verstegen, with whom I’ve had the honor of writing five books. (Our sixth, Every Day is Game Day, comes out in December). Mark’s program has changed my life, and he also introduced me to Chipotle in Phoenix in 2002 when we began work on our first book, Core Performance.
Chipotle has its detractors, to be sure. The food is salty and the taste isn’t for everyone. Plus, you’re not going to lose weight or lean out eating at Chipotle if you do not train and/or consume certain Chipotle ingredients.
Here’s how – and why – it works for me:
CONVENIENCE: The biggest misnomer about Chipotle is that it was founded or once a subsidiary of McDonald’s. Not true. Ells did take a massive infusion of McDonald’s cash in the early days to fund Chipotle’s meteoric growth, but retained control and didn’t allow McDonald’s to influence his vision. When Chipotle went public in 2006, McDonald’s cashed out and walked away.
But Chipotle is like McDonald’s when it comes to fast service. The only difference is that Chipotle is actually healthy food. Morgan Spurlock famously ate at McDonald’s every day for one month and nearly died. I eat at Chipotle 15-20 times every month and have gotten into the best shape of my life.
I’m not alone. Chipotle is often packed and the funny thing is that people who eat there tend to be in better shape than the general public. Heck, the stereotype of the chubby, donut-eating cop is disappearing in part because of Chipotle’s half-off policy for law enforcement personnel.
I’ve had many business lunches at Chipotle. Even with the lines, it’s possible to get in and our far quicker than at a sit-down restaurant.
Eating healthy on the road is always a challenge but it’s increasingly easy to find a Chipotle nearby. Now that Ells is expanding his Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept, an Asian-themed restaurant modeled after the Chipotle formula, it will get easier.
COST/VALUE: Chipotle isn’t inexpensive. But it’s a great value. A burrito with water from the soda fountain costs roughly $9. You’re getting nutrient-dense food mostly free of antibiotics and hormones. Eating right is a little more expensive, but always worth it.
STRATEGIC ORDERING: You are what you put in the shopping cart. A person’s physical appearance is usually a reflection of what’s in their cart at the grocery store. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon watching people at Chipotle, where it’s easy to load up on too many calories.
Here’s my usual order: burrito bowl with one scoop of brown rice, fajita peppers, black beans, half chicken and half carnitas, mild and medium salsas, guacamole and lettuce. Sometimes I substitute hot salsa for medium. Sometimes I’ll go with no meat. Sometimes I just order a bowl of chicken.
Here’s what I don’t order: tortilla (290 calories and 44 grams of empty carbs), white rice, pinto beans, steak, barbacoa, corn salsa, or dairy products (cheese, sour cream).
My typical burrito, according to ChipotleCalorieCalculator.com, weighs in at 650 calories, with 46 grams of protein and 66 grams of carbs. That’s relatively modest, certainly right for a 155-pound endurance athlete.
Were I to put the same burrito on a tortilla with cheese and sour cream, however, I would end up with an 1,160-calorie, foil-wrapped, 112-carb bomb with a whopping 2,710 mg of sodium – more than the 2,300 mg daily allowance recommended by the U.S. Health and Human Services.
My burrito has 1,920 mg of sodium, still a concern but at least lower.
Why no dairy? No matter how much you emphasize light cheese or a little sour cream at Chipotle, they’ll give you too much. Plus, I gave up dairy (other than whey protein) several years ago. Jack LaLanne never consumed dairy, stressing that humans are the only species to consume milk (let alone from another species) beyond the suckling stage. Jack still was doing badass athletic things when he died in 2011 at the age of 96, so he has some credibility there.
Ordering half chicken and half carnitas is for variety but also because you tend to get a little more meat than ordering just one.
You’d think more restaurants would take a food-with-integrity cue from Chipotle, which gets its meats from family farms as opposed to scary factory operations. Taco Bell officials recently started talking smack about how they will introduce a similar menu. That’s unlikely to make a difference since the 3 a.m. drive-thru crowd doesn’t place a premium on whether its munchies come from sustainable sources. Nor is Taco Bell likely to provide it.
I keep thinking I’ll get sick of Chipotle, which despite its few ingredients has thousands of combinations. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long for a Shophouse to come to Tampa Bay. In the meantime, I’m hoping to win the 20th-anniversary “Adventurrito” contest, which will give me a burrito a week through 2033.
It probably won’t be enough.