It’s nothing fancy. There’s just something about the condiment bar at Chipotle and its self-replenishing pile of disposable forks, beige napkins, and Tabasco bottles (in three colors! three!). So as I strut up wearing a halo granted to me by my ethically sourced burrito, the worst part of my soul seizes its chance to act. I grab an Amazon rainforest of napkins. I hunt for the newest, preferably unopened, bottle of hot sauce. I snag a fork—just in case.
Don’t judge me, because Chipotle definitely isn’t. As part of the chain’s back-to-school initiative, Chipotle is offering free delivery on Sundays in September. And in the first few dozen digital orders in select markets, Chipotle will include a free “Things You ‘Borrow’ Kit” that’s chock full of the things Chipotle knows people regularly steal.
“Chipotle recognizes that it goes through over 5.5 million bottles of Tabasco sauce annually, some of which go ‘missing’ in locations near college campuses along with its utensils,” the company explains in a press release. “To make it easier for students considering ‘borrowing’ these goods, Chipotle will give the first 50 digital orders in select markets a free ‘Things You “Borrow” Kit’ with their delivery order.” The company will also offer kits in limited quantities, for free, online. The kit includes a pile of napkins, some forks, and two Tabasco sauces. But that passive-aggressive set of finger quotes around “borrow” is what really makes this box sing.
It’s an interesting tactic. A few years ago, a Chipotle designer shared with me that he was considering putting the napkins behind the counter to cut down on waste, and you’d get one or two allotted with your meal. Chipotle didn’t go that direction, of course. Instead, it is enabling us and guilting us at the same time. It’s calling out the napkin wasters and hot sauce thieves with a wink that says, “Don’t worry fam, we’re getting paid again, take all you need.”
The initiative is highly reminiscent of an old ploy by Virgin Atlantic. First-class passengers were stealing the airline’s custom salt and pepper shakers so often that management wanted to eliminate them. As Richard Branson told me the story in 2015:
When I was running Virgin Atlantic, the chief executive came in one day and said, “We’re losing thousands of these. It’s costing the airline tens of thousands of dollars a month. You’re going to have to take them off. They’re far too popular.”
And I thought, “If they’re far too popular, do we really want to take them off? It’s a compliment.”
So we just put underneath them, “pinched from Virgin Atlantic.” We then found that people were continuing to steal them, and they were ending up on their dining-room table. They hadn’t looked underneath. Their guests would look underneath. And the whole evening was spent talking about Virgin Atlantic in one of our best advertising tools ever! That was a fun one which worked really well.
In any case, Chipotle seems to recognize that there’s only so much you can change consumer behavior, from my unscrupulous napkin consumption to the outright theft of its condiments on college campuses. And instead of fixing this problem, the company might be better off simply calling it out and laughing it off.