What do the Paris Review and Chipotle have in common? If you guessed that they've both published Toni Morrison, you're right. Last month, Mexican “fast causal” restaurant chain Chipotle announced that they would print original short fiction and non-fiction pieces on their bags and cups in stores nationwide. The lineup of writers that have contributed is staggering—Toni Morrison, Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, George Saunders, Judd Apatow, and Jonathan Safran Foer, who is curating the project. Overnight, Chipotle has a contibutor base that even the New Yorker would be jealous of.
So the story goes, the idea was conceived when Foer was eating at a Chipotle and, being without a smartphone (he didn’t own one yet) or a book or magazine, found himself bored and in need of reading material. Then the light bulb went off—what if there was something interesting to read on the very packaging he was eating from? He wrote an email to his acquaintance, Chipotle CEO Steve Ells, who jumped at the proposal, and here we are.
In Foer's own words, the campaign is less about having something to read when you leave the house without a book or your iPhone and more about the accessibility of quality writing. In an interview with VF Daily, Foer recalls saying in his email to Ells:
“I bet a shitload of people go into your restaurants every day, and I bet some of them have very similar experiences, and even if they didn’t have that negative experience, they could have a positive experience if they had access to some kind of interesting text.”
“What interested me,” Foer says later in the interview, “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.”
Even still, Foer misses the point of his own project. Most everyone who lives near a Chipotle has access to the internet (at home or on their smartphone) and, though waning in number, there are still bookstores and libraries nearly everywhere. In fact, while there are about 1600 Chipotle locations (most in the United States), there are over 26,000 bookstores (according to Statista.com) and 120,000 libraries of all kinds (according to the American Library Association) in the United States.
On the societal level that Foer is speaking on, the problem is not access—bookstores and libraries are still far more prevalent than Chipotle restaurants. The problem is that bookstores and libraries are becoming less and less culturally relevant, and chances are if you’re on your laptop or smartphone, you’re likely not reading Toni Morrison. It’s not that people can’t read work by these writers, it’s that they don’t.
What's unique about the Chipotle campaign, then, is that it inserts world-class writing into a space where society does a good portion of its consuming (literally) and forces the customer to at least look at it. It would be like if every time you rode the subway Pavarotti came over the loudspeaker. Maybe the fact that the encounter comes in a place where one doesn’t expect to find art would even add to the impact of the work.
Chipotle Communications Director Chris Arnold seems to acknowledge this point: “We’d like for these little two-minute essays to provide a little analog pause in an otherwise digital world," he told me. "It’s our hope that customers will read and enjoy them, and maybe discover a writer they didn’t know before.” This idea of someone “discovering” a new writer comes not from access, per se, but from putting the writing right in front of them. Redirecting focus away from a smartphone might just be necessary to accomplish that.
Even still, something about the whole thing still doesn't feel right. We can all agree putting writers of the modern American canon onto something that will be smeared and torn and, of course, thrown away is at least a little disconcerting. With this brand of forced accessibility, let’s call it—literally handing someone top-tier writing whether they asked for it or not, as opposed to say, buying or checking out a book—inevitably comes disposability.
Outraging as it might be to many, more than anything it's a sign of the times. In our Twitter-Snapchat-newsfeed culture, most of what we read is both democratic and temporary, open to all but gone very quickly. Just like putting these writers into Chipotle in the first place meets the American public on its level, so does the idea of making the writing short and temporary. But that doesn’t make the notion any less hard to swallow, even for many of the writers ask to be part of the campaign.
Said Arnold, “To get our initial group of ten submissions (which is what we have now), we reached out to between 40 and 50 writers, so many more said no to us than accepted the invitation to participate.”
The gatekeepers of literature—academia, publishing houses—have been dying a slow and painful death for some time now, but this might be the coupe de grâce, at least symbolically. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that judging by the heavy hitters commissioned by Chipotle, the new ones are also pretty strict about who they consecrate. And, as far as restaurant chains go, Chipotle isn’t so bad. Their mission statement focuses on a commitment to using organic vegetables and sustainably farmed meat—their animated film, “The Scarecrow,” about this very subject was viewed nearly 13 million times and just won the PR award at Cannes on June 16 of this year. Even McDonald’s, a major early investor, divested eight years ago (although some speculate they are still involved with the company).
But as Foer points out, none of that matters when it comes to this vision.
“Chipotle was pointed to quite often, as a model of what scaling good practices might look like,” he says. “The truth is, that’s not really why I did this.”
Although Foer states that he “wouldn’t have done it if it was for another company like a McDonald’s,” his point is that Chipotle’s status as a conscious company is not what qualifies it in this undertaking, but rather that it serves hundreds of thousands of customers per day (while not being as overtly corporate and as morally bankrupt as the face of fast food).
In the end, at the heart of the campaign is the idea that it doesn’t matter who’s providing culture so long as it gets in front of as many eyes as possible. And it’s hard to argue that that’s a bad thing, in principal. But in practice, the effects of the mass-dissemination of culture at the expense of the established channels of how and where it’s disseminated have yet to be seen. Is it such a bad thing that you have to go out of your way to read Michael Lewis, even if that just means making a conscious choice to buy or check out a book? Is it so undemocratic that a Malcolm Gladwell book be kept in a library, where it is bound between two covers and kept upright on a shelf? As I’m sure Chipotle would agree, these authors ought to be revered. It’s just hard to remember that when their work comes with a side of sour cream.
Giancarlo T. Roma is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician. Follow him on Twitter.