Every Fast-Food Restaurant Claims Its Food Is Fresh. What Is Fresh?

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 11 2013 5:15 AM

The Fresh Wars

How the five-letter word became a fast-food mantra.

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Indeed, it was a focus on experience that helped ignite the swift rise of Chipotle. The Mexican chain got its start when a classically trained chef named Steve Ells began expanding his Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill into a nationwide brand in the early '90s. Chipotle's emphasis on naturally raised meats grilled in-store and burritos made to order in front of customers gained traction opposite the mass-produced fare offered at Taco Bell. To that end, Chipotle also benefited further from a focus on morality in fast-food—or at least selling morality: With its "Food With Integrity" message, Chipotle recognized a feel-good niche that facilitated a higher price point. This established Chipotle as a forerunner of what would become the "fast-casual" movement: The sweet spot between full-service and quick-service dining, with high-quality meals fashioned while you wait.

To Doty and other Taco Bell execs, Chipotle wasn't competition per se. However, the fast-casual concept signaled a new frontier of market-share with potentially higher profit margins than those accompanying Taco Bell's value staples. The catch was in the image: How could Taco Bell, the inventor of the fat-laden “FourthMeal,” hope to gain ground on an all-natural juggernaut like Chipotle?

Simple: Bring in a chef and call it fresh

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As Fresh Wars strategy goes, there's no questioning the genius of enlisting Lorena Garcia. The Miami-based restaurateur and TV chef (Top Chef Masters) brought more than a patina of cultural authenticity to a brand whose last remotely Latin American ambassador was a Chihuahua renowned for lustily incanting, "Yo quiero Taco Bell.” She brought more than camera-ready ebullience and knifework, which easily overshadowed the fine print accompanying her commercial: "Professional test kitchen shows featured ingredients, not actual preparation." Yes, Garcia's cilantro-field tour channeled the fresh-friendly spirit of transparency that recently succeeded in spots for Domino's and McDonald's, both of which guided prospective customers through fields and kitchens to meet some of their food's producers. But what Garcia and her menu immediately gave Taco Bell was something even more crucial: A budget version of the lunch you'd get at Chipotle. At a drive-thru if you'd prefer.

Of course, none of this necessarily shortened Taco Bell's supply chain from farm to table (Doty estimates that the romaine in my Cantina Bowl takes roughly a week to travel from field to store) or introduced naturally raised chicken to its menu offerings. But the re-fresh-ening of Taco Bell galvanized at least one influential Fresh Wars observer: David Einhorn, the Greenlight Capital hedge-fund president and short-sale whiz who made his name (and his fortune) exposing the fallibility of companies like Lehman Brothers, told a conference of investors in October that his faith in Cantina Bell had led him to bet against Chipotle.

"He even beckoned a room full of analysts, traders and journalists to go to the nearest Taco Bell and see why Cantina Bowls spell Chipotle's stock demise," wrote one conference attendee, citing a Greenlight survey in which the majority of respondents "saw little distinction between the two chains." Chipotle's once-surging stock price, which had already endured a downswing of more than 27 percent since its all-time high in April, plunged another 9 percent in one day of heavy trading following Einhorn's pronouncement.

A little more than a month later, I met Chipotle's marketing boss Crumpacker in his company's New York City offices. He patted the top of a conference table, shrugged, sighed and confessed: "If I were Taco Bell, I probably would have done the same thing." Crumpacker went on to note that the Fresh Wars are a byproduct of more than just an increased focus on sourcing, openness, and ingredients. They reflect the fundamental reality that there are only so many consumers to go around. Chains like Taco Bell, Arby's and now Chipotle—which had almost two decades to itself as a bellwether of fresh standards and practices in fast food—have to take sales from other chains. They have to wrest sales from other chains. "That's the only way it works," he said.

Chipotle Carnitas Bowl.
Chipotle Carnitas Bowl.

Courtesy of Chipotle

Chipotle's own fresh stratagem is perhaps the most constrictive in the game, reflecting a grown-up, sophisticated model of morality that puts it (almost) above the fray. With its emphasis on ingredients, preparation, and narrowing the distance between farm and table, Chipotle has invested its ad dollars most significantly in winning the hearts and minds of the kind of people who read Michael Pollan. The company has introduced fresh-inflected initiatives like its Farmer's Market tours and Cultivate festivals, which bring chefs, farmers, casual foodies, hardcore locavores, musicians, and artists together in a celebration of sustainable, locally produced food. Most notably, its video spot "Back to the Start," featuring the tear-jerking catharsis of Willie Nelson covering a Coldplay song over a factory pig farmer's animated epiphany, had gone viral well before it ever aired during the 2011 Grammys—a broadcast marking Chipotle's first and only TV ad to date. Like other freshness marketing tactics, "Back to the Start" purports to tell a "real story," this one inspired by Russ Kremer, a Missouri hog farmer who nearly died 20 years ago after he was gored by one of his antibiotic-treated boars. After fighting off a stubbornly drug-resistant infection, Kremer swore off antibiotics and hormones in favor of naturally raised livestock.

In truth, "Back to The Start" isn't Chipotle's real story any more than Lorena Garcia's kitchen is Taco Bell's real story or Bo Dietl's meat-investigation exploits are Arby's real story. It's just another narrative co-opted by a publicly traded corporation and targeted at the American aspiration for identity and connection and improvement. The video's admonition to "Cultivate a Better World" sounds to a close observer of the Fresh Wars like a shrewd excuse for the higher cost of Chipotle’s offerings.

But Chipotle, which sells the closest thing to actually fresh food in the modern marketplace, thinks quality will trump all. "More than anything," Crumpacker says, "we're banking on the fact that people want something that tastes better. And what we're doing does taste better. David Einhorn can say it doesn't, but I think most people would say that ours tastes better."

Does it? As I sit in the Taco Bell near Union Square scowling at my Cantina Bowl, with tourists and college kids gorging on Doritos Locos Tacos and XXL Nachos on either side of me, I realize that the Fresh Wars will last only as long as consumers are willing to give claims of freshness and all its associated qualities—transparency, truth, cultural authenticity, morality, and taste—the benefit of the doubt.

As I lift my fork, though, I wonder if these "beautiful ingredients" before me were really worth losing the tortilla—or worth wading into the Fresh Wars at all. There's only one way to find out.

*Correction, Feb. 11, 2013: This article originally described Rob Reilly as the creative director of Crispin Porter + Bogusky. His title is partner/worldwide chief creative officer.

S.T. VanAirsdale is a senior editor at Sactown Magazine. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.