With nearly 2,500 venues in the United States, Chipotle Mexican Grill and its burrito-based menu has garnered a national reputation on par with Burger King and MacDonalds. Annual revenue of nearly $4 billion has allowed the company to go out in search of new markers, with Toronto and London becoming home to venues in the past 10 years. Their London venues are located in the centre of the city, within easy reach for Americans hooked on their home staple, as well as a spread of students and locals accustomed to the fast-food end of Mexican cuisine.
Whereas MacDonalds and Burger King continually toe a line between junk food and the barely permissible, Chipotle have made a concerted effort to differentiate by providing fresh, reasonably healthy food to their restaurants. A hygiene scare in 2017 led to the half-day closure of all venues to allow for staff training - a reassurance to their loyal fans that fresh food does in fact require proper cooking and preparation. Beyond their product, Chipotle restaurants are also differentiated from the burger giants by being generally smaller, more smartly designed and cleaner, with a degree of staff service to suggest more of a “restaurant” type setting.
In an effort to get a behind-the-scenes feel for the what it would be like to work at Chipotle, I went through the hiring and training process during February 2019, completing a trial shift at one of the London venues. Here I break down some of the lessons and observations from my 5-hour Chipotle employee experience.
I used a third-party website to submit my interest in working as a Cashier, receiving a prompt response from one of the in-office staff to attend a weekday interview at 3:30pm. It didn’t come across that there were other times to interview, so I booked in for the afternoon, in confidence that the interview wouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes. At the point of applying, it seemed not to matter that I had no previous experience working in food and beverage.
The interview took place at the restaurant I had applied to in Central London, during the quiet afternoon window on a Thursday. Several other candidates were also filling out paper work when I arrived 10 minutes before the interview, documentation that would essentially duplicate the information submitted online. One of the restaurant managers sat me down for roughly 10 minutes to find out why I wanted to work at Chipotle and which parts of the operation interested me and why. The manager providing a quick sketch of the role, indicating the dishwashing, food prep, serving and dining area cleaning responsibilities. Evidently, the role required the completion of all frontline tasks, with the exception of cooking.
Once my interest was notes and deemed adequate, I opted for the unpaid trial shift for the following Monday evening and was told to get the restaurant for 4pm, wearing a black t-shirt and trousers to match (but please, black). Until this point, no correspondence had been issued through the hiring platform to confirm this trial shift, nor did I receive an email directly from Chipotle after the interview.
The purpose of the trial shift at Chipotle is to find out an employee's general level of motivation, ability and team fit. I got the impression that compatibility mattered as much as anything, especially given that the Cashier role didn’t indicate any need to have prior experience.
On arriving at the venue on the Monday, I was buddied-up with an existing employee who also worked the till. She had been at the branch for over 15 months and was working part-time to support her studies at St. Mary’s University. For the first 15 minutes of the tour, I was shown around the ground level restaurant and its sub-basement facilities for customers (toilets) as well as the staff facilities (locker room). Of the two toilets in the women’s, one was declared to have been out of order for five years, despite having no “out-of-order” signage. Presumably many a burrito has gone cold while uninformed customers waited for the locked cubicle.
Three other crew members worked the evening shift with me, also offering guidance around the facility. As well as handling a twenty or so payments on the till and issuing of alcoholic drinks to ambitious customers, my other tasks included:
Food prep: perhaps the hardest part of the shift. No sharp knives were in the facility, so we resorted to using plastic picnic knives to peel about 200 red onions, a trial which compares with trying to cut an apple with a butter knife. Plenty of slippage and a great deal of wasted time.
Washing cooking containers: using the industrial-size sinks (c. 200L), four of them. Dishes started in the far right sink in their grubbiest condition and shift to the right. Items include steel tins for cooking meat, steel ingredients containers from the line and tongs, for grabbing ingredients during burrito prep.
Wiping tables: using a sanitised cloth to wipe down tables, clear abandoned baskets, burritos and drinks containers (generally, diners bus their own tables). Emptying the bins and replacing depleted cutlery and serviettes were the station needs within the dining area.
Beyond the shortcomings in the cutlery department, key equipment was provided to make work easier. Latex gloves were stocked throughout the staff areas, though the Large size was hard to put on with damp hands after washing dishes. I was told that XL gloves exist, but they couldn’t be found during my shift. Washing up gloves would also have been a good idea, especially given the sanitising fluids in the final stage of the washing up (rubbery hands after as a consequence).
On the people front, the crew were very welcoming and fun to work with. One presumed that Chipotle stands to benefit by having Neapolitan millennials contribute to the chain.
The trial shift seemed successful at the venue - feedback was generally positive but the manager admitted afterwards that there was in fact no availability at the venue. This was a surprise to me, but the manager reassured me that another Chipotle venue two miles to the north was looking for a crew member. Happy with this alternative, I accepted the notion of going there and was told that all I needed to do was show up to the second venue and mention that I had completed a trial shift in another kitchen.
On calling the proposed venue's manager the next day, I found at that I would need to complete a second unpaid trial shift and even then, I wasn't guaranteed a position nor would one likely be possible since other candidates had trial shifts scheduled before mine. Considering my intention to get the role, this news was irritating and reflects an undefined or disregarded hiring process.
Some of London’s Chipotle venues also receive orders from Deliveroo customers, meaning that several times during my shift, a road-worn courier would enter the clinical setting of Chipotle, dressed in resilient cycle apparel. Certainly a contrast.
Beyond ensuring that I completed tasks with to best of my ability, perhaps the great shortcoming was to casually drop my one dish scrub in a sink when setting out to wipe the tables. After returning from the dining area, I couldn’t quickly find the scrub among the oceanic sinks and half-buoyant food containers. A lesson in operations - always leave items in their prescribed location.
Finally, despite being one of the hot topics now, it’s not clear how Chipotle and their customers recycle their waste cans, bottles, foil and plate paper. All these products are loaded into regular plastic bags, but this could be because the Westminster City Council deals with the different materials later in the waste management process. Either way, not the most conscious disposal effort for 2019.