Is Chipotle Actually Considered Fast Food?

Chipotle has had its ups and downs over the years, from the roaring success of the early 2010s to its struggles with food safety, but there is one thing it will always be able to hang its hat on: It was a genuine pioneer in food chains. From its start in the early 1990s, Chipotle sought to carve out a new space in the food industry by serving higher-quality, freshly prepared food at a faster pace than sit-down restaurants. The new model was an astounding success, with massive growth through the 2000s that gave birth to copycats and pushed existing chains to try and copy Chipotle's formula. But it also gave rise to questions. What is Chipotle? And is it still fast food?

It's a complicated question to answer because Chipotle's way of making food for the masses is different than most and restaurant industry terms can be unhelpfully broad. Chipotle is widely considered by the industry to be "fast casual," not fast food, and is credited with popularizing the fast-casual concept. But Chipotle itself has referred to its business as fast food and maintains a big focus on fast service. The things that supposedly separates Chipotle, and fast casual in general, from fast food, are things like ingredient quality and transparency in sourcing. That may matter to investors and industry insiders, but does that really mean it's not fast food?

Chipotle straddles the line between fast casual and fast food

Beyond speed and quality of ingredients, the other two factors that seem to distinguish fast casual from fast food are prices, and where you eat. With premium ingredients, fast casual restaurants are usually solidly more expensive than fast food rivals, although still less expensive than full-service restaurants. They're also usually defined as a place where people are actually stopping and sitting down to eat, not just hitting a drive-through or grabbing and going. This is exemplified by another chain frequently cited as fast casual, Panera, who generally builds their locations to be inviting for dining in.

Chipotle definitely hits the first mark when it comes to prices. Its menu is solidly more expensive than Taco Bell or Del Taco, but its dining arrangements are a bit more complicated. Chipotle of course has room to sit and eat, but the feel of most locations is much more functional and casual, closer to a fast food spot than a Panera. And Chipotle has also been rapidly expanding order-ahead drive-thrus too, erasing one difference that used to be a clear distinction between fast food and fast casual.

The only clear thing with these terms is that nothing is actually that clear. Despite pioneering the fast-casual trend, Chipotle increasingly looks like a fast-food restaurant. Other spots called fast casual like Sweetgreen and Blaze Pizza do as well. Chipotle and fast casual may be an evolution of fast food, but it's still working within that industry in most customer's eyes.