Chipotle portions haven’t shrunk, company says after TikTok backlash

Chipotle portions haven’t shrunk, company says after TikTok backlash

It’s been an extra-spicy ride lately for Chipotle, which is riding out a perfect storm of rough social media waves. The recipe for the popular burrito chain’s current woes is a complex one, including the simmering discontent that customers are feeling about food prices, viral videos, rapidly spreading rumors, food “hacks” gone wild and a former influencer-collaborator gone rogue.

After a barrage of criticism about what customers claimed were dwindling portion sizes, the company this week had to publicly quash a rumor that diners could get bigger portions simply by taking out their phones and filming Chipotle workers as they prepared their orders. The company also offered to make amends with those who felt they had been skimped.

“There have been no changes in our portion sizes, and we have reinforced proper portioning with our employees,” said Laurie Schalow, Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs and food safety officer, in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “If we did not deliver on our value, we want our guests to reach out so we can make it right.”

The statement follows increasingly vocal online complaints in recent months from diners about the perceived stinginess of the burrito chain’s portions, once thought to be so generous that a crafty orderer could feed themself for days from a single bowl. But things took a big turn when massively influential food reviewer Keith Lee echoed those laments — and added a few dings of his own — in a May 3 TikTok review.

Lee, whose mild-mannered delivery and efforts to avoid getting special treatment have distinguished him from a sea of online food reviewers, wields considerable influence, even beyond his 16.3 million TikTok followers. (It’s called the Keith Lee effect, and it’s real.)

“I used to love Chipotle,” he said at the start of the segment, in which he ordered several menu items. “Lately, Chipotle has not hit the same, in my opinion.” Things did not get better from there. He struggled to find bits of chicken in his bowl. “See, I don’t see no chicken at all,” he said as dug around in disappointment, ultimately giving it a 2 out of 10 rating after locating a few lonely chunks. His formerly favorite steak quesadilla got a 2.5 (“tastes like Steak-umms”).

What made the criticism sting — and no doubt ring true to viewers — was that Lee was previously known to his followers as an enthusiastic Chipotle fan. He even collaborated with the brand last year, with Chipotle introducing a special menu item, the “Keithadilla,” which was inspired by a custom order that Lee and fellow TikTok celebrity Alexis Frost had popularized in a viral video series.

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

For Chipotle, the virtual pile-on intensified. Some people called for users to register their displeasure with the company by leaving one-star reviews on its app. Others took their grievances to their local locations, posting videos of themselves starting an order, but walking out of the restaurant midway if they thought the workers behind the counter were not doling out sufficiently generous scoops.

All of this is playing out against a backdrop of customer frustration with rising food costs across the board: at the grocery store, in fast-food drive-throughs and at white-tablecloth restaurants. Rising costs on ingredients, labor and more are to blame, experts note, but the consumer backlash has been vitriolic. In some widely circulated videos, people have been decrying the prices of Big Mac meals, some as high as $18. And although Chipotle insists that its portions have stayed the same, consumers are faced all around with “shrinkflation,” 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 spate of videos about what some were calling a “Chipotle phone hack” or “Chipotle phone rule.” It’s not clear where it originated, but on TikTok, videos claimed that Chipotle workers had been instructed to mete out larger portions if customers were filming them. Many of the videos showed workers piling food into bowls, which posters took as “proof” of the validity of the rumors.

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

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

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

The chain’s human element has long made it a target, too. Workers take customers’ orders and prepare them on the spot, so each interaction can be seen as a potential for manipulation. Case in point: According to self-described professional food hacker Anderson Nguyen, one trick is to ask for toppings one at a time. “If you list out every item you want, the worker is already going to preportion every item in their mind and give you less,” he says in his video titled “Every Chipotle Hack to Maximize Your Order,” which has 9.1 million views on TikTok.

The chain’s hackers 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 consult this decade-plus-old guide, where it is the No. 2 suggestion, behind offering employees a big smile). But over the years, they’ve resorted not just to psychological trickery, but also to actual science, at least according to a 2015 BuzzFeed story headlined “This Guy Used Science To Get An 86% Bigger Burrito At Chipotle.”

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