Famous authors: they’re just like us! One day, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Everything is Illuminated — found himself at a Chipotle with nothing to do but eat a burrito. Why, you ask, could this man of letters not busy himself with Candy Crush like the rest of us? He did not own a smartphone yet. He forgot to bring a magazine. He didn’t even bring a book. A book writer without a book. Can you imagine. He described his agony to Vanity Fair Daily thusly: “I really just wanted to die with frustration.”
Fortunately for us all, Foer did not die of frustration that day. This death-defying writer realized that there was some blank real estate on the side of his Chipotle cup and bag. As Banksy sees a bare building and knows it is calling out for art to cover it, so Foer saw this space could be filled with stories. He emailed Steve Ells, C.E.O. of Chipotle, to suggest they “Get really high-quality writers of different kinds, creating texts of different kinds that you just give to your customers as a service.”
Today, this vision is a reality: original works by Foer, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis appear on those cups and bags. Chipotle is calling this effort Cultivating Thought.
To this I say, well, why not? It’s sure better than those “inspirational” quotes on the sides of Starbucks cups, less annoying than an advertisement, a little less fun than the games on the backs of cereal boxes, but as good a way as any for a human who would otherwise be twiddling his or her thumbs while eating a burrito (sounds messy). I guess you could make the argument that it’s not so very difficult to just hang out, bask in the glow of being alive, and people-watch/stranger-judge. Apparently we cannot go even five minutes without some form of stimulation or entertainment, be it highbrow or Angry Birds. Let’s all take a moment to mourn our collective inability to live Liz Lemon’s dream of sitting in peace and eating a sandwich.
Oh my God, that took forever. Let’s never do that again.
It could be seen as hypocritical for Foer, a vegetarian and avowed skeptic of big food, to go into business with Chipotle. But maybe hypocritical is too strong a word? After all, Chipotle’s thing is being the more sustainable fast food option. Much of their marketing stresses that they buy organic, local ingredients and meat from “naturally raised” animals. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported, they were the first U.S. chain to label and push to eliminate its genetically engineered ingredients. They recently added a vegan tufo burrito to their menu.
Said Foer: “What interested me is 800,000 Americans of extremely diverse backgrounds having access to good writing. A lot of those people don’t have access to libraries, or bookstores. Something felt very democratic and good about this.” A 2009 report from The National Endowment For The Arts announced that, for the first time in 26 years, literary reading is actually on the rise among American adults, and that literary reading is increasing fastest among young adults. But every little bit helps.
Then again, not all is well and “democratic” over at Chipotle. The New York Times is reporting that, last year, Chipotle paid Ells $25.1 million in cash and stock. Chipotle’s other co-chief executive, Montgomery F. Moran, was paid $24.4 million. The CtW Investment Group is “a vocal critic” of the pay; Michael Pryce-Jones of CtW said, “It’s a reckless pay structure that does nothing to appropriately incentivize management to create long-term value. Their pay is out of whack however you measure it.” Some helpful math, again from the NYT: “The average starting salary at one of the company’s 1,600 restaurants is about $21,000 annually. Earning that wage, a Chipotle employee would have to work for more than a thousand years to equal one year of the co-C.E.O.s’ pay.”
A thousand years is a long time. Good thing those employees will have something to read while they wait.