I rolled burritos at Chipotle, and it changed me

working the line at Chipotle
All photos by Rebecca Feder

I've been to Chipotle a quadrillion times in my life, so I'm pretty critical when it comes to how my burrito is rolled. Watching someone make your burrito is like being at the craps table -- you know that one bad roll can ruin everything. Clunky gambling metaphors aside, I judge the hell out of whoever is rolling my burrito. It looks easy. How could someone ever screw this up?!

I recently visited my local Chipotle and let them show me how to prepare a few popular dishes in an effort to understand how much work they have to do in order to make rolling your burrito seem effortless. Helping me out is Amber Engebretson, a 13-year Chipotle vet who's an operations restaurant manager, a restaurateur, and an exceedingly patient person. You'll see why.

working the line at Chipotle

Learning the basics of working the line

Before the restaurant opened at 11am, Amber took me through all the things I'd need to learn if this were my first day at Chipotle. Many of their employees get in between 7-8am to do prep work: someone's gotta freshly prepare those huge batches of guac and salsas.

My eyes glazed over as I looked at all the things I would be expected to learn if this were my real first day. Instructions like how much meat and rice to portion for each burrito, down to the ounce. There was other stuff too. I just don't remember it.

I was overwhelmed, and we hadn't even begun yet.

working the line at Chipotle

Preparing to be a burrito roller

They ran out of Chipotle T-shirts, but they did give me a plain black apron. And gloves. The first pair didn't fit me (I asked for a small, as I have tiny hands). I almost had to ask someone to help me put on my gloves.

The employees were understanding of my glove situation. "They're hard to put on if your hands are wet!" one of them said. She must've seen the look of desperation on my face. I wondered how long they would watch me try to put on gloves before determining that making burritos was maybe not my thing.

An hour? Two hours? Luckily, I just needed another minute to glove up. Now I was ready-ish.

working the line at Chipotle

Taste-test time

This is what's called a "line tasting". Employees taste every ingredient on their first day so they can confidently make recommendations to customers. After tasting the cilantro-lime brown rice, Amber and the store's restaurateur decided it needed more salt. Then they made me taste it again. Huge difference.

I tried not to make a face when I tasted the pinto beans, which I never order. They had a stronger kick to them than I expected. Instead of asking for water, I just sucked it up and ate the steak next. A real burrito roller never shows his emotions. Wait, is that poker players? Or men in general?

working the line at Chipotle

Weigh the meat perfectly, every time

If you work the line, you're expected to know what 4oz of meat, rice, and salsa feels like on the spoon. I scooped 3ish ounces of chicken. Amber got 4oz on the dot. Whatever, she's done this before. One minute I'm scared I'm going to embarrass myself, and the next I'm mad I couldn't outscoop a 13-year Chipotle employee. Makes sense.

working the line at Chipotle

Sometimes you scoop meat, and sometimes you tong it. But no matter how you do it, the meat must weigh 4oz.

working the line at Chipotle

The no-look tortilla press

Your burrito sherpa (trademark pending) is supposed to make eye contact with you while the tortilla is being pressed, asking you what you'd like on your burrito. The press lifts up slightly when the tortilla is ready.

working the line at chipotle

Preparing a burrito

First, I spooned 4oz of rice onto the tortilla, centering it on the tortilla. You're supposed to put the spoon back in the center of the serving tray to make it easier the next time you or someone else picks it up. I always forgot to put it back in the center, probably because I don't care about anyone else.

working the line at Chipotle

Then, you gently layer beans on top of the rice (after letting the excess bean juice filter through the slotted spoon), the meat on top of that, and finish with the usual assortment of salsas, cheese, guac, and lettuce.

Simple as (burrito) pie! Except for when my meat slid off the beans and rice and onto the counter. Not sure how I screwed up one of the simplest things you can do, but I managed.

working the line at Chipotle

Rolling a burrito

This is where things get interesting. Here, I'm lifting two sides of the tortilla to center the food in the middle. Then, one side of the tortilla lies on the counter while the other goes up and over the food, before it's pulled back in a raking motion.

working the line at chipotle

Here, I'm doing what Amber called "bringing the edges up", which is to say I'm using my pinky to seal off an edge of the tortilla and make sure the food doesn't escape.

working the line at Chipotle

At this point, the burrito is rolled slowly but surely. "Baby rolls", they call it. My hands are on top, and they're nudging the burrito along -- with my left hand and then right. Back and forth. Watch one Chipotle employee do it in about six seconds. It took me longer, to say the least.

working the line at Chipotle

The nightmare burrito

Since practice makes perfect, we tried rolling a few more. To make me feel better, Amber put together one of the tougher burritos to roll: one that's basically all liquid. Extra salsa, extra sour cream.

I immediately forgot I had to roll a burrito of my own, and began laughing at her. My sense of relief was probably felt by everyone in the room, as I realized I wasn't going to be the only person messing up today.

working the line at Chipotle

I'm not even paying attention to my own burrito anymore. I mainly want to see her fail.

working the line at Chipotle

Amber's spent more of her life rolling burritos than you have eating them, and even she can't neatly roll this sucker. But there's no way anyone thinks about the degree of rolling difficulty their burrito poses. Maybe we should. This stuff takes skill.

working the line at Chipotle

I still can't roll a burrito without help. I even told her, "I'm going to do this one on my own."

We see how well that worked out.

working the line at Chipotle

Messing up tacos

OK, the reason this is difficult is because the spoon doesn't fit into the taco. You've gotta wiggle the spoon to throw the meat in there, and it becomes a serious mess. Getting sour cream in there isn't any easier. Fun fact: the portion size is the same as a burrito, only it's split evenly into three tacos.

working the line at Chipotle

Wrapping up tacos isn't as difficult as rolling burritos. It's a matter of keeping the tacos straight up while you wrap the foil around them.

I have no idea what my hand signal means here. Must've caught a fish during my training at some point, and I wanted to show our photographer how big it was.

working the line at Chipotle

Messing up guacamole

Yeah, this isn't easy either. If you angle the spoon, you can get a fair amount of guac in the tiny cup. But since Chipotle wants its employees to fill the cup up with that beautiful avocado mash, there's almost inevitably gonna be spillage when you push down the lid. As you can see.

working the line at Chipotle

Learning the lingo

Frequenters of Chipotle are no doubt familiar with the small "g" on their burritos letting the cashier know to charge extra for guac, but what does a circle around a letter mean? This burrito translates to mean that you got extra barbacoa and guac, you hungry so and so.

working the line at Chipotle

Eating my handiwork

After making a couple of burritos, tacos, and a side of guac, I decided to taste my handiwork. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't as tasty as when a Chipotle employee with burrito-making experience puts it together. It shows that the skills of the line workers, even on something that looks as simple as rolling a burrito, can greatly influence the final product.

I'm not going to take their efforts for granted anymore. I rolled burritos without being under any stress whatsoever, and I found it to be challenging. If I experienced the pressure they do on a daily basis, with lunch rush, and rude customers, and making burritos with the high standards people expect from Chipotle -- I'm not sure I could do it.

Then again, 98% of the company's managers start as crew members, just like those line workers. And some of them go on to become GMs and restaurateurs, people who pull in serious six-figure salaries. Perhaps I'll go work on my burrito rolling technique some more.

Lee Breslouer writes about food and drink for Thrillist, and really wants a burrito right now. Follow him at @LeeBreslouer, because you can't make up a name that good.