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Chipotle draws the fire of Rick Berman

chipotle burrito bowl

A scrappy lobbying shop that usually turns its guerilla tactics on enemies of restaurant chains is squaring off with one of the industry’s own. Rick Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom has set out to change the public’s perception of Chipotle Mexican Grill by running full-page ads that blast the fast casual star’s food as a health hazard.

“Eat two ‘all-natural’ Chipotle burritos a week and you could gain 40 pounds in a year,” reads the ad, which rechristens the brand Chubby Chipotle.

The print spots and a new CCF website, ChubbyChipotle.com, accuse the chain of being hypocritical in its claims of serving food with integrity.  The social and environmental benefits that Chipotle says it delivers aren’t real, the site asserts.

Chipotle’s claims have been criticized privately by chains and some industry officials as sanctimonious exaggerations that are intended to make consumers’ other dining options look bad.  Of particular annoyance has been the depiction of most restaurant chain’s food as industrial glop produced in factories.

The message has been delivered in everything from a movie aired at Chipotle’s expense to consumers, to a video game.

The public and some public advocates have cited Chipotle’s sustainable sourcing efforts as proof that a large chain can be more socially conscious without hurting sales and profits.

The CCF’s new program suggests that distinction is actually a deception based on falsehoods.

The campaign is the latest in a string of recent wallops for Chipotle, a poster concept of sorts for the fast-casual sector. Earlier this week, a class action lawsuit was filed against the chain, asserting that claims of offering a GMO-free menu are misleading.

A study of CEO compensation put the company second among all U.S. corporations in the disparity of pay between top officers and rank-and-file workers. Chipotle has drawn considerable fire because of the pay level of its co-CEOs, Steve Ells and Monty Moran, who together collected more than $40 million in 2014.

A decision to drop a pork producer because of its animal-welfare policies contributed to a slowdown in sales in the second quarter.

The ChubbyChipotle campaign is the second time this week that Berman’s Washington, D.C.-based Berman and Co. has stirred controversy with its street-fighting approach to lobbying on restaurant-related matters.

A billboard commissioned by the firm for New York City’s Times Square plays to a negative public impression of fast-food workers, an image that the industry has struggled to improve. The ad blasts a planned wage hike by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a giveaway to slackers who have neither the education nor skills to command pay of $15 an hour.

Berman, a labor lawyer who worked for the now-defunct Steak and Ale casual-dining chain, is one of Washington’s best-known lobbyists on restaurant-related issues. His in-your-face tactics prompted a segment on “60 Minutes,” where he was referred to as “Dr. Evil.” 

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