Chipotle: Broken Promises and Blurred Lines

This weekend, activists in 24 cities and five countries – as far away as Stuttgart and Copenhagen – joined us in declaring to the world that “It’s not Food, It’s Violence.”  In the United States, we delivered an open letter to Chipotle– one of the fastest growing animal killers in the world– demanding that its CEO Steve Ells redeem his broken promise “to run our business in a way that doesn’t exploit animals.”  The Bay Area protests once again made the news, and the wonderful folks at Animal Voices devoted an entire episode to our campaign.

The company is starting to respond. Corporate HQ in Denver has been following the campaign closely, writing privately to us in order to persuade us to call off the protests. And this weekend, for the first time, it sent out word of our protests to its managers all over the country and made frantic attempts to stop our demonstration. In Santa Cruz, a large and angry-looking manager waiting at the door interrogated customers to ask if they were planning to buy a burrito, and pushed them out if they said, "No." (We still went in and managed to get him to take a copy of the open letter.) In San Francisco, the store locked its doors in anticipation of our protest, excluding demonstrators and customers alike. (Our activists entered anyways when a customer opened the door from inside.) All this fuss, over an open letter to the company!  Why?

The manager confronts an activist in Santa Cruz, immediately upon entering the restaurant. 

The manager confronts an activist in Santa Cruz, immediately upon entering the restaurant. 

Well, we got our answer this morning, with a gleaming front page headline in the New York Times:  “Chipotle Blurs Lines With a Satirical Series About Industrial Farming.”

Chipotle is launching a brand new "Farmed and Dangerous" advertising campaign – part of the tens of millions it spends every year – that pretends not to be advertising at all. It is, rather, an original miniseries about a hero (“Chip”) who saves the world from industrial farming… by killing animals with kindness! Simultaneously, a new documentary short on Netflix (Inside Chipotle) was released where the company’s CEO Steve Ells is depicted as liberating pigs from factory farms and discussing the importance of “values” and “integrity” to the company’s philosophy. 

I’ve written previously about the dangers of corporate empires that wear moral masks. And, as a former corporate lawyer myself, I can tell you that publicly traded companies have one, and only one, legal duty: to maximize profits. (Contrast this with what they say to the media: “ ‘Farmed and Dangerous’ is meant to strike large emotional chords — it’s not about selling burritos.”) But Chipotle, which has been praised by the press as the "marketing master," recognizes that there is something in the air. When the New York Times is wondering whether we might soon see animal slaughter as a holocaust, when the most prominent intellectuals of our time are comparing animal agriculture to human slavery… then the titans of Meat, Inc. are forced to come up with an effective response. And Chipotle, the third largest restaurant company in the country, is showing its violent peers the way: co-opt the progressive message. Divert liberationist yearnings into meek consumerism. And displace our movement’s greatest strength – the integrity and urgency of our message –with the promise of happy meat (and maybe a vegan burrito, too).

In short, Chipotle is not only in the business of breaking promises, but blurring lines.  Martin Luther King, Jr. warned that the greatest danger facing liberation was not the hatred of the bloody oppressor, but the passivity of good people lulled into complacency. Powerful forces – inertia, tradition, conformity – operate to make all of us relapse back into acceptance of even the most brutally oppressive systems. Maintaining a clear and distinct vision of the world – an anchoring point – is crucial to our movement’s base and its growth. But Chipotle (with even its former owner McDonald’s frantically following in its footsteps) wants to blur the distinctions between the beautiful world we dream of – a kind and peaceful world for all animals-- and the frightening world we currently have – a violent and profiteering world where animals are killed for corporate greed. It wants us to be complacent, to be comfortable, to be accommodating. To put down our signs and our bullhorns and recognize that even violent fast food chains can have "integrity."  And, above all, it wants consumers everywhere to buy more over-priced burritos. (Chipotle charges 100% more for a burrito than McDonald's can get for a Big Mac.)

Chipotle's footprint in Manhattan. Some restaurants are literally down the street from one another. 

Chipotle's footprint in Manhattan. Some restaurants are literally down the street from one another. 

And, sadly, Chipotle's strategy is working. Fabulously. When it recently went public, the company had the second largest initial public offering ever by a food company. And Chipotle has grown at an almost unimaginable rate – 1000% over the past five years – while making billions of dollars on the slaughter of animals. Chipotle locations now scatter the landscape in urban areas such as Manhattan and SF, and there is talk in the financial press about Chipotle displacing McDonald’s and Yum Brands! as the paradigmatic fast food empire. All while smiling to the world with its famous corporate motto: Food with Integrity.

It’s an Orwellian nightmare come to life.

But underneath all the slick marketing, there is vulnerability. Because the company, and its yes-men executives fawning at the feet of the millionaire founder Steve Ells, have taken things too far. They’ve become caricatures of themselves, blustering about their integrity, goodness, and even heroism, and creating videos where Chipotle executives save animals from brutal torture. (Who knew that Chipotle was part of the Animal Liberation Front?) Commentary on the company’s "Farmed and Dangerous" miniseries at Gawker shows that even those outside of the animal rights movement are starting to recognize and, well, cringe. Chipotle is not, contrary to its marketing, a team of brave young activists who are fighting to free animals from factory farms. It is a violent, abusive $16 billion corporation that has: been out-ed by even meat industry publications as sourcing from factory farms; been sued and cited by the feds for immigration abuses; fired employees for developing cystic fibrosis; and, most importantly, killed countless animals since it opened its doors in 1993.

No, Chipotle. You are not our savior. And the public is starting to see this. 

Every one of these animals was a person with feelings and a family. Every one was brutally shoved into a filthy transport truck, and forced to endure hours of terrifying confinement, uncertainty, and pain on the long drive to execution. And every one quivered in sheer terror as she heard the screams of her sisters and brothers ahead of her in the slaughter line. Chipotle can try all it would like to blur the lines between their vision, and ours. But, in the long run, it will not work. Because we, as animal liberationists, will not believe their lies. Because we will not compromise our greatest dream. And because history will prove that we were right.

We have one last protest for our Broken Promises day of action. It’s occurring tomorrow, in the center of the San Francisco Financial District (the capital of progressive capitalism, if there is one). We hope you can join us, in person if you are able, in spirit if you are not. But even more important, we hope you never give up your dreams.

Don’t buy the corporate myths. Don’t accept the profiteering lies. Fight for liberation, not corporate profits. Fight for the countless stolen lives.