Chipotle has a major problem with (allegedly) small portions

It’s been an extra rough ride lately for Chipotle, which is riding a perfect storm of rough social media waves. The recipe for the popular burrito chain’s current woes is complex, including the simmering dissatisfaction customers feel about food prices, viral videos, fast-spreading rumors, food hacks gone wrong and a former influencer employee turned rogue.

After a barrage of criticism over what customers claimed were shrinking portion sizes, the company this week had to publicly quash the rumor that diners could get larger portions by simply pulling out their phones and filming Chipotle employees as they prepared their orders . The company also offered to make it up to those who felt they had been cut corners.

“There have been no changes to our portion sizes and we have reinforced appropriate portion size among our associates,” Laurie Schalow, Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs and food safety officer, said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post. “If we haven’t delivered on our value, we want our guests to contact us so we can make it right.”

The statement follows increasingly loud online complaints in recent months from diners about the perceived stinginess of the burrito chain’s portions, which were once thought to be so generous that a crafty orderer could feed himself from one bowl for days. But things took a major turn when hugely influential food critic Keith Lee echoed these laments — and added a few things of his own — in a May 3 TikTok review.

Lee, whose soft-spoken demeanor and attempts to avoid special treatment set him apart from a sea of ​​online food critics, wields significant influence even beyond his 16.3 million TikTok followers. (It’s called the Keith Lee Effect, and it’s real.)

“I loved Chipotle,” he said at the start of the segment, in which he ordered several menu items. “Lately, I don’t think Chipotle has accomplished the same thing anymore.” Things didn’t get better from there. He had trouble finding pieces of chicken in his bowl. “Look, I don’t see any chicken at all,” he said as he wandered around in disappointment, eventually giving it a 2 out of 10 rating after finding a few lonely bits. His previously favorite steak quesadilla received a 2.5 (“tastes like Steak-umms”).

What galvanized the criticism — and undoubtedly resonated with viewers — was that Lee was previously known to his followers as an avid Chipotle fan. Last year, he even teamed up with the brand, with Chipotle introducing a special menu item called the “Keithadilla,” inspired by a custom order that Lee and fellow TikTok celebrity Alexis Frost popularized in a viral video series.

The incident only highlights that influencers’ influence on social media can go both ways, says Kate Finley of Belle Communications, who works with both brands and influencers. And she says if so many customers are noticing the same kinds of changes, Chipotle — or other brands — need to acknowledge it. “If there had been a change, they could have used influencers to proactively communicate that change, along with the ‘why’ behind it,” she said.

For Chipotle, the virtual pile-on intensified. Some people called on users to express their dissatisfaction with the company by leaving one-star reviews on the app. Others took their complaints to their local locations, posting videos of them starting an order but walking out of the restaurant halfway through when they felt the employees behind the counter weren’t handing out generous enough scoops.

All this comes against the backdrop of customer frustration with rising food costs across the board: at the grocery store, in fast-food drive-throughs and in white-tablecloth restaurants. Rising costs for ingredients, labor and more are to blame, experts note, but the consumer response has been vitriolic. In some widely circulated videos, people have criticized the prices of Big Mac meals, some as high as $18. And while Chipotle insists portions have remained the same, consumers everywhere are facing “shrinkflating,” a tactic often employed in the food world , where customers pay the same amount for a subtly smaller product.

More trouble for Chipotle came with a new series of videos about what some called a “Chipotle phone hack” or “Chipotle phone rule.” It’s not clear where it came from, but videos on TikTok claimed Chipotle employees were instructed to hand out larger portions when customers filmed them. Many of the videos showed workers piling food into bowls, which posters took as “proof” of the validity of the rumors.

But stopping the spread of a wildfire-like message on TikTok isn’t easy, Finley said, especially among millennials and Gen Zers. “They will speak it as it was in the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” she said.

Of course, attempts to hack Chipotle orders—many of them with the goal of getting the maximum amount of food for the least amount of money—are practically as old as the company itself, which was founded in 1993 and spun off in the mid-2000s. spread throughout the country. . After all, the ultra-customizable bowls, burritos and tacos lend themselves to tinkering — deal-seeking customers have learned to maximize them to their own benefit.

Chipotle did not respond to a request for details about its portion policy. But some people have shared images from an employee guide showing standard sizes, including four ounces of meat, rice and beans.

The human element of the chain has been making the chain a target for a long time. Employees take and prepare customer orders on the spot, so every interaction can be seen as a potential for manipulation. Case in point: According to self-proclaimed professional food hacker Anderson Nguyen, one trick is to ask for toppings one at a time. “If you list every item you want, the employee will already divide each item in his mind and give you less,” he says in his video titled “Every Chipotle Hack to Maximize Your Order,” which has been viewed 9.1 million times has been viewed. TikTok.

The hackers of the chain have been at it for years. One canonical truth among them is that the chain’s bowls are the best vehicle for loading up on freebies (just check out this decade-plus old guide, where this is suggestion number 2 behind offering employees a big smile) . But over the years, they’ve resorted not just to psychological trickery, but to actual science, at least according to a 2015 BuzzFeed story headlined: “This Man Used Science to Get an 86% Bigger Burrito in Chipotle.”

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