Saturday, February 11, 2012

Murray's Coming Apart: The Chipotle Epilogue

One of the unexpected fruits of my encounter with Charles Murray's Coming Apart  (see the preceding week of posts) was a lengthy and edifying Facebook discussion of Chipotle Mexican Grill.

I put this query to my varied group of Facebook friends

I am reading Charles Murray's Coming Apart. He has a quiz to see if his readers are in touch with regular Americans. One of the questions was this: How many times in the last year have you eaten at one of the following restaurant chains? Applebee's, Waffle House, Denny's, IHOP, Chili's, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I. Friday's, Ponderosa Steakhouse.

In his explanation, he said that members of the new upper class are likely to go to McDonald's sometimes, but are likely to skip the casual-dining chains for fancier non-chain restaurants. That is an interesting claim in itself.

My real question to you, FB friends, is his further claim. He did not include Chipotle Mexican Grill, which is also a top-ten casual dining chain, because it "is to the casual-dining genre of restaurants as Whole Foods is to grocery stores."

Is this true? I have never been to Chipotle, but I had not any impression of them as fancier than the others.

This query drew a rich response - 37 and counting, as of this writing - from just the kind of well-educated white managers and professionals who Murray say constitute the "new upper class."

Most who wrote agreed with Murray's basic contention that Chipotle had a different model that the other casual-dining restaurant chains. A sample of these kinds of comments:

Chipotle is for those who want fast-casual but are environmentally and/or health-conscious since Chipotles use sustainable and relatively local meats in each franchise.

I pick up "to go" from Chipotle very often. They market hormone free meat and fresh ingredients. You choose all toppings and they feature less mainstream brands such as Izze sodas and organic milk for kids. If that's fancy, I guess so.

I think Chipotle is part of Bobo [bourgeois bohemian] culture. The ingredients are infinitely better than most chain restaurants and customers can feel better knowing they are eating happier animals. 

It's not fancy, but I do think they are more hipster than a place like Qdoba. They advertise their sustainability and freshness much more. 

Some were more cynical about the actual difference between Chipotle and the other casual-dining chains:

I also wonder if a lot of this isn't about marketing. I noticed the comments above on Chipotle's advertising about sustainability, quality ingredients, etc. Cynically: really? Or do they serve the same stuff but market to the niche of people who fit the same socio-economic profile as Applebee's customers but want to try to eat responsibly. I think Murray's reasoning may be circular. It's not that (independently defined) elites -- for example, those with college degrees or X amount of money in the bank -- like Chipotle but not Applebee's. It's that elites - defined as those who like Chipotle -- like Chipotle. And what makes Chipotle elite? It's own advertising and Murray's perception of elite values.

In the end, though, I don't want to lose sight of Murray's larger point.  He contends that the class of highly educated managers and professionals who mostly run the country eschew the kind of places that the middle-middle of the country regard as good.  My overall feeling is that Murray is right. I have sometimes eaten real fast food for convenience, but if we go out to a sit-down dinner, it is almost always at a non-chain place. And this is due to exactly the kind of mild snobbery that Murray is talking about. I don't object to the food - I am not very picky - but I do object to the pseudo-Gemeinschaft and underlying sterility of the casual-dining chains. 

The only one I have eaten at in the past year is Waffle House, and this is because its proletarian quality is neither fake nor hidden.

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