As part of the campaign to make it's food processes more transparent, the chain invited Business Insider to go behind the lines at its test location in New York dubbed Chipotle NEXT Kitchen to see first-hand how everything is made and served.
I found out working at the chain is more of a culinary experience that I thought - there's an entire team in each Chipotle location dedicated to cooking, seasoning, tasting, chopping, and generally preparing all ingredients for the day.
While I wasn't able to get a look at the refrigerators and storage spaces, I was able to see that a lot of the food prep is done by hand, it's all tasted by employees to ensure proper flavoring, and handwashing is so important that they heed an alarm at the top of every hour.
I visited Chipotle's NEXT Kitchen in Manhattan's West Village for a morning of prep and a mock-service shift, where I got to see exactly what goes into making your favorite menu items and what it's like to serve the hungry customer.
The NEXT Kitchen is a fully-functioning Chipotle restaurant where the chain can test out new menu items on the public.
At the time we visited, they were testing out a variation of frozen Mexican hot chocolate ...
... and a gadget that has the potential to streamline quesadillas across all Chipotle menus.
When I visited the test kitchen, I joined a team of six employees dedicated to the culinary aspect of the fast-casual Mexican food joint.
When employees first arrive for their shift they have to complete a wellness check — a quick questioning process. A manager asks whether they're feeling sick, have felt sick in the past two days, or have any symptoms of a potential sickness coming on. If all signs point to healthy, they're allowed behind the counter.
Next, it's time to wash up. There's a specific process for washing: turn on the water, load up with soap, lather away for 20 seconds — or the length of the "Happy Birthday" song — rinse, towel off, turn off the tap using the towel, and finish with a dose of hand sanitizer.
The restaurant mandates water should be roughly 100 degrees — or as hot as the washer can handle. This is because some people believe hot water is better at killing germs — although The New York Times has reported that any water cool enough to wash our hands with isn't hot enough to kill bacteria.
Employees at Chipotle are required to wash their hands every hour on the hour. To help keep everyone on track, there is a timer that goes off on the top of every hour that sets off a succession of short beeps.
It's also policy for a crew member to wash their hands again every time they change tasks. Since I was hopping from one task to the next, I was washing my hands extremely often — they had never felt so clean!
Just like personal hygiene, Chipotle takes food cleanliness extremely seriously. They use Victory wash by Ecolab — a water additive and cleaning agent — to kill bacteria on their produce.
Chipotle has moved toward a process of preparation they call "focus prep," where a specific team of people starts food prep at 6 a.m. This ensures there are less people touching the food and that it's done in an environment where guests aren't interacting with it at the same time.
This focus prep team has been dubbed the culinary team — their job consists almost exclusively of food prep as opposed to serving customers, too. Crew members have individual specialties, and I got to learn a bit about each of them from the pros themselves.
These employees get to hone culinary tricks like knife skills that are necessary for working in any kitchen. Cutting peppers efficiently is harder than it looks, folks.
Prep at this location will usually last until around 2 p.m. — with lettuce taking first priority as it's such a "volatile item," a staffer told me.
Before any cutting takes place, the employee needs to make sure all safety measures are in place. A chain mail cutting glove like this one is mandated by corporate to prevent accidentally sliced hands — knives used at the restaurant won't cut through the material. It was a little big on me, but the crew assured me it comes in different sizes.
With three layers of gloves on my left hand and one on my right — my knife-wielding hand — I was ready to get down to business.
Cindy, a member of the focus prep team, was my lettuce whisperer. She taught me the company process, and I've since adopted it myself at home.
She showed me that cutting the head of romaine in half and then cutting a "V" shape at the stem saves you from wasting all that crispiness at the bottom. Genius!
The cut lettuce gets pushed back into the sink with Victory wash ...
... then scooped out and drained ...
... and put into the largest, most industrial salad spinner I've ever seen.
After it's all clean, the lettuce gets separated into deep bins ...
... and labeled with the date so it doesn't sit for too long.
I also learned how to cut a pepper the Chipotle way.
Whoever is prepping the peppers cuts the top and bottom off first, slices down the side to flatten the vegetable, and removes the whiteish ribbing and seeds.
The peppers are then cut into slices about 1/4 inch wide — it's very precise.
Since so much of the menu relies on consistency, all crew members use a recipe book. There's a recipe for each menu item that outlines specifics on cut sizes as well as food safety and proper washing.
Thankfully for everyone who ate at the NEXT Kitchen that morning, Patty, another focus prep team member, helped me out at the guac station.
Scooping and plopping avocado into a bowl seems like it would be a simple thing. But it's another task that's harder than it looks, especially with the added pressure of cooking a restaurant's best-selling a la carte item!
Patty saw me struggling and said, "Experience comes with time." Thanks, Patty.
After one case-worth of avocados are de-cloaked and in a bowl, the mashing commences. A team member brought out what looked like the largest potato masher I've ever seen and handed it over — so I got to work.
It felt like an intense upper body workout. This method yields a guac laden with both chunks and mousse, unlike the straight purée that often comes out of a bag.
An essential part of guac is the veggie and citrus combo. Patty had pre-macerated the combo of ingredients, which include lime juice, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro. Since it's hard to wash cilantro, the process of macerating it in acid is supposed to act as a second bacteria-killing wall.
Patty said it's important to add the salt last so the granules don't clump together from the lime juice.
This batch looks like a lot, but it's just one case of avocados. The Chipotle NEXT kitchen uses between five and 10 cases of avocados in a day, a staffer told me.
Tasting is an essential part of prep company-wide. Especially when dealing with ingredients like avocado — which come from different parts of the world depending on the season — that range in taste depending on the batch.
For this reason, Chipotle teaches employees a flavor profile — ensuring they all know what each menu item should taste like. Full-menu group tastings happen four times per day, but every time anything is made, someone will taste it.
A manager said "That's as good as you'd get" after tasting my guac. I take that as a personal compliment — except Patty deserves all the credit for this batch. I loved that I was able to taste the chunks of fresh onion and tomato — since it's made multiple times daily, the integrity of each ingredient isn't compromised.
Although it's made in-house, customers can't customize their guac, but they can ask for just avocado if they're willing to be patient. They can customize their rice, though, by ordering it sans cilantro. This bowl and burrito base is also made daily in-house.
Chipotle offers chicken, steak, barbacoa, carnitas, and sofritas as its main protein filling options. Out of all five, chicken is the best seller.
The chicken thighs come to each Chipotle restaurant pre-marinated from a distribution center. Each piece of dark meat gets placed flat-side-down on the grill a few inches away from one another.
Pro tip: When chicken starts to get white around the edges like this, you can start to flip it.
Even though it comes pre-marinated, employees still need to season the meat once it's on the grill.
Once it's cooked, the chicken is moved over to a cutting board that's flanked by two deep, built-in bins. The bins are there so whoever is in charge of cutting the protein can easily push the cubes into a bin that will keep them warm until they end up in a burrito or a bowl.
Although their measurements don't have to be exact, the chicken needs to be cut into squares as close to perfect as the cutter can get.
After protein prep we moved onto "the line" — the counter with all the food ready for customers.
The team showed me how they get the tortilla press ready for the day. While it's heating up, they test out a few tortillas to make sure the press is both clean and hot enough for efficient customer service.
After everything was set up it was time for me to try my hand at service.
A staffer told me there are just 51 ingredients in the building. With those 51 ingredients, though, thousands of menu combinations can be made. The possibilities are endless — depending on how creative you can get.
Since ordering at Chipotle is an interactive experience, you can easily see how your meal is assembled. Starting with a grain base and protein ...
... adding some toppings ...
... sauces ...
... and finishing up with a liberal sprinkling of cheese.
Folding burritos in a way that will keep them from exploding onto your clothes is a true art form.