Starting today, in what the Chipotle calls its “Cultivating Thought” author series, customers will get two-minute reads from a famous author, journalist, or comedian along with their meal. Accompanied by whimsical illustrations, the brief (and briefer) essays are printed on Chipotle’s bags and cups. The series was created and curated by Jonathan Safran Foer and boasts names that are likely to be recognized even by those unacquainted with the work behind those names. Contributors include Nobel Prize-laureate Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize-winner Sheri Fink, comedian Sarah Silverman, and multiple fiction award recipient George Saunders.
Foer said the idea for the series originated when the vegetarian found himself without reading material while eating a burrito in Chipotle. Foer told Vanity Fair that he first met the company’s CEO Steve Ells six or seven years ago when Ells invited him to lunch after the release of Foer’s book Eating Animals. Foer describes the book as a farm industry critique that explores “the many stories we use to justify out eating habits.” The function of these stories, says Foer, are to lull people into “a brutal forgetting.” A couple years after that, said Foer, he sent Ells an email suggesting that “access to some kind of interesting text” might make a Chipotle customer’s experience a more positive one.
The video promoting the series provides a slightly different origin story. Foer says in the short film that he proposed at his lunch with Ells that the blank surfaces of Chipotle’s cups and bags be used to “give something to people, not as any kind of marketing tool, not with any particular message, but just something thoughtful.” While the restaurant chain is noted for promoting itself in nontraditional ways such as its Hulu series Farmed and Dangerous, the Cultivating Thought series reportedly has no promotional slant. Whatever its beginnings, Foer states that the writings are to function as small gifts by providing a way for people to feel engaged. The series upholds a fundamental human value that says it is better to have your mind provoked than not have it provoked, says Foer.
Thus, original work was commissioned from ten prominent people, including Foer himself. The writers, when he approached about them about project, were enthusiastic and excited by “the goodness of it.” Foer says the vision they shared was the most inspiring part of the project for him. For example, Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker said of his part in the series that he is “strongly in favor of cultivating thought,” adding that it is “a civilizing, enlightening, and humanizing process.”
Of course, there are some outside the circle of Chipotle, the curator, and the writers involved in the series who are less enthusiastic about the endeavor. Some see an incongruence with someone who not so long ago came off a country-wide book tour promoting vegetarianism and veganism taking money from a company that sells meat and poultry. Foer addresses the raised eyebrows by explaining that he came to know “quite a bit about the company,” but not in the context of Cultivating Thought. Foer states that during the research and writing of Eating Animals, Chipotle was often referred to “as a model of what scaling good practices might look like.” But Foer quickly admitted that “that’s not really why I did this [the Cultivating Thought series].” The real reason is because he wants to give 800,000 people access to good writing. “A lot of these people,” says Foer, “don’t have access to libraries or bookstores.” (Some see an incongruence with this statement as well, wondering if there are actual geographical locations in the U.S. that sport a Chipotle but no bookstore or library.) The chain, however, does have vegetarian options, and it is also known for its mission statement: Food With Integrity.
Other issues people have taken with the Cultivating Thought series is that Chipotle is paying ten people who are already superstars in their respective fields, meaning that they are likely getting a fairly substantial fee. Meanwhile, Chipotle charges customers an extra $3.15 (in some locations) for guacamole and chips. Exposing 800,000 people to unknown writers, whom Chipotle would participate in the series for the exposure alone, and giving their customers free guacamole and chips is seen by some as the better way to go.
Opinion By Donna Westlund