Workplace lessons from Chipotle

Sour cream, the most insidious of ingredients, blanketed a mountain of Mexican-inspired madness. This customer had ordered a double-wrap, double-barbacoa burrito smothered in guac and dripping with salsas. I stared, petrified. It was my first day working at Chipotle and I couldn’t even figure out where to position my hands.

At school the learning process is much more formulaic. Attend lecture, do your homework. Study with practice problems, go to office hours for extra help. Unfortunately, there’s no textbook for how to handle sticky (or rather, juicy) situations in the workplace. Technically, the training videos demonstrated burrito-wrapping techniques on a perfectly dry, four-ingredient burrito. They introduced cutesy phrases like “the five finger grip,” whereas I couldn’t even stretch my hand around this beast of a burrito. And what if I did fail? Should I ask my coworker to step in and perform reconstructive surgery on this botched operation?  Should I apologize profusely? Should I avoid eye contact and pretend nothing happened?  I would soon find out.

I attempted a roll, but immediately a salmon-toned concoction of sour-cream-and-hot-salsa residue spurted out. A slimy mess of rice, beans, and guac exploded onto the foil. The customer was watching, and so was my manager. I was mortified. 

This scene—botched burrito, hangry customer, disappointment and embarrassment—repeated endlessly. I’ve never been great with my hands (just ask my ceramics teacher), but Chipotle was confirmation. At first I was excited to serve customers no matter what, but my enthusiasm quickly drained because I thought failure was my only possible outcome.  I’d squeeze the tortilla too hard, causing the tortilla to rip, or I wouldn’t tuck in the food hard enough, and food would spill out the sides.

Even worse, my strategy to vanquish my old archnemesis (Calculus) was useless here. When I found integrals tricky, I’d drill practice problems until they became second nature. But I couldn’t wrap fifty extra-juicy burritos just for practice. Instead, I learned to observe carefully and improve my workplace communication.

Because hands-on practice was limited to those customers who ordered burritos, closely watching my coworkers became one of my best learning tools. It turns out, the motion is less like rolling sushi, and more like a single flip so the seam side lies flat against the foil. 

Rolling burritos pushed me to be more assertive too. Chipotle is my first job, so I was already unfamiliar with work etiquette, let alone the fast-paced world of food service. I was pretty scared of judgment from my coworkers (anybody who witnessed my burrito abominations, really), but keeping to myself wouldn’t make me better at my job. And my coworkers had great advice: keep an eye on the diameter of filling, cover salsas with cheese, and avoid tapping the tortilla with the serving spoon. I even asked my manager if I could work the takeout line, so I could practice rolling burritos without the pressure of customers watching. At first, I was uncertain that I could give my preferences at work. However, I realized that since I had concerns with the level of service I could provide, I was responsible for voicing them.  And when we did get burrito orders (which were rarer because people loved the new quesadillas), I made sure to approach those opportunities with intention, because those were the rare opportunities to apply what I had learned. 

About a week later, I successfully wrapped back-to-back takeout orders of sofritas, guac, and extra sour cream burritos without a drop on the foil. I knew that the switch flipped.

On paper, my job sounded so easy. However, wrapped up in the dozens of burritos I made this summer were important lessons: adapting my learning habits, speaking up, asking questions, and not taking things too seriously. Keeping those burritos collected taught me to stay collected too. When I no longer fear what the line throws at me, the world is my tortilla. 

Jessica is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. 


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