This is how it goes for Chipotle these days: You spend years refusing to make queso, because you can’t do it in a way that feels consistent with your stated mission; you finally announce that you’ve cracked the recipe, trumpeting your success as if you’ve unlocked the secrets of the Voynich Manuscript; you roll out the queso across all stores, at a time when you need a hit; a bunch of people on Twitter with 12 followers each drag your new concoction so hard that food outlets collect and publish their burns; and, as a result, your company stock plummets yet again.
All of this, over queso. Cheese dip. A food so globally beloved that even Ted Cruz’s gross ode to the stuff couldn’t ruin it (though… almost), and yet so simple that the recipe on the back of Velveeta boxes is the benchmark by which all other iterations of the dish are measured.
That’s the power of melted cheese: Make us sick with eColi and you can bounce back, feed us queso we don’t like and you’re f*cking dead. That’s hardly an exaggeration — the dip is already being blamed with ruining the brand’s latest attempt to reclaim consumer loyalty. On Friday, Chief Marketing Officer Mark Crumpacker swiftly issued an internal memo, assuring Chipotle team members, essentially, “Haters gonna hate.”
“The formal research we conducted prior to rolling out queso nationally showed very different results than what you might assume if you only looked at comments on social media,” Crumpacker wrote in the document (obtained by Bloomberg). “The decision to move forward with the launch was based not on social media comments, but instead on in-depth research and the sales impact in the test markets.”
His comments give rise to two questions: 1) Have Twitter users — with their diverse palates, extreme takes on literally everything, and unverified food knowledge — gained too much food-rating power? and 2) Who’s right about the queso’s quality, the Tweeters or the rich corporate dude whose job depends on it?
The answer to the first question is “Probably, yes, but businesses will just have to adjust.” In order to answer the second question, we decided to try the queso for ourselves and come to something approaching a final verdict.
For this test, we ordered the queso two ways: Inside a barbacoa burrito, and as a dip with flour tortillas. The tortilla-instead-of-chips move was deliberate. Chipotle’s chips are pretty much just dehydrated lime wedges, and citrus and cheese rarely mix well. The acidic flavor of these chips wouldn’t play nicely with any sort of queso, so we skipped them all together.
The dip is unarguably… pulpy. Or lumpy, as some have called it. We’d also accept grainy. This should surprise no one. It’s melted cheddar without unnatural stabilizers. Velveeta’s entire ad campaign during the 90s was based on the premise that Velveeta is smoother than cheddar. Back then no one cared much about chemicals in food and smoothness was a hell of a competitive advantage. But Chipotle’s goal was queso without chemicals, and by keeping that promise they can’t really measure up.
Texture aside, how is the flavor? Well, it’s not bad. Not offensive. But certainly weaker tasting than we’re used to. Even sharp cheese is going to taste unexciting when diluted in a queso. The company would have been wise to add cheese powder, which would amp up the flavor without throwing their ratios off. Velveeta (our queso gold standard) uses a similar technique — adding whey concentrate to their product. Basically, a good queso needs more cheese flavor than just cheese can actually provide.
There’s also a certain acidity to the dip. This is inexplicable and underscores the whole limey-chip situation. The acid-tartness here seems to come mostly from tomatillos, though the ingredient list also includes lemon and lime — because Chipotle’s corporate chefs are apparently deathly terrified of scurvy.
The other flavors are mostly inoffensive. Certainly not worthy of a real life rant, but on Twitter everything is rantable so… have at it. At the end of the day, this queso is what it is — a natural product trying and failing to compete with an unnatural one. It brings to mind a classic Parks & Rec scene in which Chris and Ron compete to see if Chris’s snobby, cheffed-up turkey burger can compete with Ron’s basic burger on a bun. The answer is a resounding “no.” You just can’t beat a classic by changing the core ingredient.
The classic, in this case, is Velveeta. It’s where queso started — in the form of government cheese — and it will likely never be overthrown. Luckily for Chipotle, queso operates off the famous Brian Grubb pizza corollary: Even the worst attempt at the dish is pretty damn good. So they came at the king and missed. Fine, we can all agree on that. It’s not a total loss. We’ll still probably order it every time we visit, it’s just not likely to win back the customer loyalty that Chipotle has squandered through years of fumbling.
For their part, the brand is going all in on cheesiness. They’re putting on a huge Instagram contest that seems overly complicated (it runs for five days and there are different rules each day), with the prize being a year’s supply of queso. Will it be enough to bring people sprinting back to the once cultishly beloved chain? Probably not, but… maybe — after all, the power of cheese should never be underestimated.