I live in a college town. More specifically, I live in a sorority house...next to the most popular bar in town. Needless to say, any night of the week between the hours of 11PM and 2AM, except Sunday night, is an adventure.
In the five years that I have lived here, and for several more before my arrival, the town’s development was stagnant. When the recession hit, the few development projects under consideration came to a sudden halt as uncertainty and risk-aversion took hold of even the most speculative of real estate investors. Those projects have since been reignited, and ground has broken on new hotels, apartments, and supermarkets. However, in the intervening years, the only new businesses to spring up in town were those with the highest probability of succeeding: restaurants.
What is interesting is that the restaurants that opened and came to dominate the eat scene are derivations of the same model, essentially the Chipotle-pioneered assembly line. Whether its Jason’s Deli, Lime, Potbelly, Roti, Saladworks, Chidogos, Jimmy John's, Bobby's Burger Palace, Yogiberry, or Five Guys, all of these restaurants specialize in grab-and-go eating. You walk up to a register, choose a “platform” (e.g., sandwich bread, salad bowl, burrito tortilla), pick your toppings, and either grab a seat or hit the road. No need for waiters or waitresses in this model, or for tipping. If you decide to eat in the restaurant, which is sometimes made difficult by the relatively small number of actual tables, the whole experience takes no more than twenty minutes.
In many ways, the popularity of these restaurants makes perfect sense. They are quick, inexpensive, and offer a fair amount of flavor diversity. Franchisers and restaurateurs are simply responding to market demand. However, if we take a step back, we must wonder how this consumer preference came to exist. And if seemingly every new restaurant that pops up assumes this form, we must ask how this space is shaping—in what I call the Chipotle effect—the way college students think, behave, and relate to one another.
Many intellectuals have noted that we are living in an era of unprecedented, even celebrated, individualism. They see evidence of this individualism in the declining rates of participation in civil society and community (see Bowling Alone). They likewise see it in changing conceptions of the family, with more and more young people choosing to put off marriage and having children until they establish themselves, complete their degrees, or enjoy youth unburdened by responsibilities beyond self-gratification (see Bobos in Paradise). The assembly line restaurant model should be seen as an expression of this individualism. You are able to take a more or less flavor neutral piece of bread or tortilla and individualize it to your liking.
As I thought about the other types of projects that constitute redevelopment in the area, I realized that there are other spaces catering to individuation. Take, for example, student housing. Many of the new apartment complexes, which, by the way, are constructed above retail spaces featuring Chipotles and similar establishments, have adopted a uniform set-up. Students have their own bedroom and bathroom, with a shared kitchen and common area. There can be as many as four or five individual bedrooms to an “apartment”. Students have fewer opportunities to accessorize their rooms as they could a burrito, but the space is, nevertheless, theirs alone. Given the exorbitant amount students pay for a bedroom in these set-ups, it is perhaps foolish to argue that they should have anything less than their own, separate domain.
Yet research suggests that students, particularly those in their first year, have higher grades and are more likely to stay at a university if they live in traditional residence halls, where they share a large bathroom and live with a roommate in an admittedly small space. I recognize that not all students are able to live on campus, nor does this generic conclusion capture the experience of all students. But it does imply that, rather than merely selecting where we eat or sleep based on our preferences, we are also profoundly affected by the spaces we regularly inhabit.
Herein lies the potential problematic of the Chipotle effect. If increasingly we navigate spaces that encourage our individualism, do our interactions become brief, passing, or diluted? When we devote so little time to sitting down for a meal, what activities fill the void? For me, when I take away lunch from one of these restaurants, I don’t use the time gained in any useful way. I eat in front of my laptop, perusing Facebook—alone. If we extend the Chipotle effect beyond eating habits, the grab-and-go ethos becomes ritualized and normalized. For an entire generation, constant movement and diluted relationships becomes our modus operandi.