‘Stop shoving phones in our face’: Chipotle staff are sick of TikTokers trying to catch them ‘skimping’

<span>Chipotle locations have struggled to staff up amid a nationwide staffing shortage.</span><span>Photograph: Stephen Brashear/AP</span>
Chipotle locations have struggled to staff up amid a nationwide staffing shortage.Photograph: Stephen Brashear/AP

When Atulya Dora-Laskey clocks in to her job making tacos, burritos and salad bowls on the line at a Chipotle in Lansing, Michigan, she knows there’s a chance a customer will whip out a camera to film her assembling their lunch. If it does happen, “it’s immediately anxiety-inducing for my co-workers and me,” she said. She finds it “very stressful and dehumanizing” to be filmed at work.

These incidents of filming began last month, after rumors circulated on TikTok and Reddit alleging that Chipotle line workers skimped customers on the chain’s infamously large portion sizes – unless customers filmed workers making their order.

Keith Lee, a former mixed martial arts fighter and TikTok food critic who has more than 16 million followers on the app, kicked off the controversy in a May video review of the fast casual chain. “These portions be crazy,” Lee said before digging into a burrito bowl, looking for the protein. “Where’s the chicken at?” he asked while dramatic music played in the background.

Then Drew Polenske, an influencer with a TikTok audience of 2.6 million, encouraged fans to “tank” the average review of the restaurant’s mobile app in retaliation … while mentioning his name in their one-star reviews.

Later that month, another influencer, Isaac Francis, filmed himself ordering at Chipotle. He first positioned his camera so that it showed his face while ordering, but then switched it to record the hands of the employee making his bowl. In the video, Francis indignantly asked for more rice and chicken. He wrote in a caption that he “couldn’t let” the worker “disrespect me with that protein size”.

It’s very stressful and dehumanizing

The clip garnered more than 115,500 likes on TikTok, inspiring copycat videos from content creators filming their own orders being made. On Reddit, users who claim to be customers shared instances of “the skimp”, disappointed in their slim takeout burritos or puny bowls. As one Barstool headline put it, “The hottest new life hack is filming Chipotle employees as they make your burrito so they don’t skimp on portion size.”

Brian Niccol, the company’s CEO, said in interviews that he didn’t condone the filming trend. Instead, he said that anyone who wants more food in their bowl should give the counter person a “look” that indicates they want another serving. A spokesperson for Chipotle later told the New York Times: “Filming does not result in larger portion sizes.”

In fact, Dora-Laskey said that, if anything, she’s given filmers less food. “We actually go lighter on portions, because we don’t want to be on the record violating Chipotle’s proportion policy,” she explained. According to her, workers can be disciplined if they go over mandated portion sizes. “You could get in trouble with your boss for giving a customer too much food.”

Some Reddit users who claim to work either as Chipotle line workers or managers say they are pressured to keep portions small as a cost-saving measure. Though Chipotle reps have said the company has made no changes to its portion sizes, it has raised prices – six times since 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal. But while fans like to complain, many of them will not quit the chain.

Another factor at play: Chipotle restaurants are struggling to staff up amid a nationwide staffing shortage. (Last year, the company said it was seeking to to hire 15,000 more people in North America.) If Chipotle stores run out of a protein, Dora-Laskey said, it can take “quite a while” for staff to make more if too few people are scheduled for a shift.

“Once you run out of chicken or whatever meat a customer asks for, it may be 20 to 40 minutes until you get more, which means there will be a lot of angry customers,” she said. “So you’re probably going to do your best to give them as little of a serving as possible.”

Dora-Laskey works at the only organized Chipotle, where in 2022 employees voted 11-3 in favor of creating a union under the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. They said a union was necessary to combat understaffing, irregular scheduling and low wages. (A Chipotle spokesperson wrote in a statement to Marketplace that she was “disappointed” with the union win.)

On Reddit, one user who claimed to work on the line at Chipotle wrote that though they sympathized with customers who feel cheated, it was disrespectful to film a low-wage worker just trying to get through another shift. “Please stop shoving phones in our face,” they wrote. “Chipotle gets so much free publicity off of this and it makes us employees who are there to make a livable wage to feed our families seem like literal zoo animals behind glass that make bowls until our backs and wrists are gone.”

The fact that the Chipotle social media frenzy took off at all means, in Dora-Laskey’s eyes, “there’s a real interest in placing blame on crew members, whether that’s coming from random TikTokers or the CEO”. Any frustration would be better directed toward the top, she believes, especially as the chain made $9.9bn in revenue last year and continues to open stores in both major cities and smaller towns. (The average Chipotle counter worker makes $17 an hour, according to the company.)

Dora-Laskey said that if someone asks for a larger portion – and they’re not filming her – she’ll give them another half scoop. Anything more costs extra, and those are set rules she has to follow because it’s her job.

Last year, Chipotle debuted a “cobotic” (collaborative robot) that can make bowls and salads. In July, CEO Niccol told investors that the machine would hit restaurants “in the next 12 to 18 months”. According to Business Insider, it can make up to 180 bowls an hour – six times more than a human.

TikTokers take note: you can’t tell a machine to give you more protein. As Dora-Laskey put it: “A lot of customers who are getting served by a robot will finally experience, for the first time, what official Chipotle serving sizes are supposed to be.”