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Why Chipotle Wants You to Read Its Cups and Bags

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The chain restaurant hopes to distinguish its brand by tapping famous writers to adorn its packaging with prose.

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Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) has a whole new way to spice up its burritos. The fresh-fast-food chain last week launched a new line -- not of food products, but of cups and bags embellished with original short prose works by the likes of Toni Morrison, Malcolm Gladwell, Judd Apatow, and Jonathan Safran Foer.

It's all thanks to an idea by Foer, who while dining on a Chipotle burrito was hit by a wave of frustration common to bookworms worldwide. It was a fate worse than death: He was stuck with Nothing to Read.

Had he been in a Vienna coffee shop, he could have reached for one of those newspapers displayed on long poles and available for perusal by cultured patrons. In a Tokyo sushi bar, a small library of manga could have kept Foer's eyes occupied while he devoured his lunch.

Instead, Foer started brainstorming, he explained to Vanity Fair, and he emailed Chipotle CEO Steve Ellis, whom he had met a few years earlier. "I said, 'I bet a sh*tload of people go into your restaurants every day, and I bet some of them have very similar experiences. ... 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.'"

Ellis agreed, and Foer picked a diverse group of writers to contribute their own two-minute reads.

The ubiquity of smartphones -- and the ready availability of all kinds of written content on them -- means that Chipotle patrons aren't necessarily counting on the restaurant chain to provide them with something to read, or that they'll show up as desperate as Foer was during his own dining experience. Nor is it likely that this will somehow open up a new gateway to literacy to Chipotle patrons. Let's face it: If a student is struggling in school, reading philosophical ruminations by Michael Lewis scrawled on the side of a paper bag at a fast food restaurant probably isn't going to alter much in his life.

What it could do, however, is help Chipotle Mexican Grill consolidate its brand as somehow distinctive and upmarket from that of other fast food giants like McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) and Burger King (NYSE:BKW); eateries such as Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA), which, like Chipotle, also emphasizes fresh ingredients; or upstarts with niche concepts such as Noodles & Co. (NASDAQ:NDLS).

With its new "Cultivating Thought" initiative, Chipotle is ostentatiously shunning vulgar commercial stuff like profits (after all, it could simply use the space for self-advertising) while still making sure that its cups and bags will have a distinctive look if carried out on the street. Clever, clever, clever.

That alone may not win the restaurant an extra dollar of revenue, but to the extent that it tempts the kind of customer who thinks she's somehow above dropping in to buy a burrito at a chain eatery -- she'd rather head for a neighborhood indie restaurant or trendy local food truck -- it's a win-win marketing ploy.

Editor's Note: This article by Suzanne McGee originally appeared on The Fiscal Times.

For more from The Fiscal Times:

Who's Losing in the McDonald's-Taco Bell Breakfast Battle


The 12 Best Restaurants in the World

US Job Market Has Changed Dramatically in 15 Years


Follow The Fiscal Times on Twitter @TheFiscalTimes.
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