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Chipotle Leads Way in Sustainable Fast Food; Expands Market for Naturally Raised Meats

August 6, 2013 |

Anyone who has visited a Chipotle Mexican Grill knows their business model: pretty, tasty tacos and burritos prepared to order in an assembly line of tortillas, savory shredded meats, beans and an array of salsas to fit your heat tolerance.

What you might not know is that Chipotle is leading the way for “fast food” chains to transform their food sourcing to a more environmentally responsible model that taps local farmers, patronizes humanely-raised meat farms and gives customers a more healthful mouthful. Or, as Chipotle puts it, “Food With Integrity”.

In 1993, Steve Ells, a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, had an idea for a restaurant that offered freshly made-to-order burritos, inspired by the neighborhood taquerias he frequented in San Francisco. He bought an old Dolly Madison ice cream shop in Denver, Colorado, hired a staff, which developed a mean wrapping technique, and experimented with roasted corn salsas. Chipotle was a hit.

Twenty years later, Chipotle is a player on the New York Stock Exchange, has expanded to more than 1,400 restaurants and has redefined the usually pejorative term “fast food.”

“I wanted to elevate fast food,” Ells said. “The idea was that I could use these authentic ingredients, but then put my own twist on them.”

Ells trained as a chef, not as a businessman (“I was an art history major,” he said, dryly), so his aesthetic was geared more to taste than lowering the bottom line. But it’s a focus formula that works for Chipotle. In 1999 Ells learned a little about how most factory-farmed pork is produced (pigs kept in filthy, tiny cages leading to a terrifying end in processing) and vowed to change the purchasing practices for his business.

He started sourcing his pork through Niman Ranch, which allows its pigs to roam freely in grassy pastures. By 2010, 100 percent of the pork Chiptole served came from naturally raised farms. Today, 100 percent of the chicken Chipotle serves comes from farms that don’t treat with antibiotics and raise their poultry humanely.

Ells also made it a policy to source produce within 350 miles of the restaurant and buy as organic as possible. Today, 40 percent of their beans are organically grown, relieving the environment of some 140,000 pounds of chemical pesticide since 2005. As they say on their website, “We know it tastes better.”

Local sourcing is not easy. When asked how they find their farmers, Communications Director Chris Arnold is unequivocal.

“With a lot of effort,” he said. “We have been building this program over the span of a few years now. Under our ‘local’ program, local comes from within 350 miles of the restaurants, though much of it is closer than that, particularly in places like California where there is an abundance of agriculture. Finding the farms takes legwork on our part, but as awareness of the program grows, we also get inquiries from farms that are interested in working with us.”

Fresher food and more humanely-produced meats create a better-tasting product, judging from Chipotle’s growth across the country. But it’s hard-won.

“Pork is pretty easy for us at this point,” Arnold said. “But other meats are a bit of a challenge. Steak in particular has been tricky in that beef cattle takes much longer to raise than pigs or chickens. (But) I think we’ve certainly helped to expand the market for naturally raised meat. And that’s a good thing. The more that food that is raised right is widely available, the better off we’ll be.”

But perhaps one of Chipotle’s most progressive business decisions was providing GMO labeling for all the meals they produce. Even Chipotle is not fully GMO-free (“Though we’re working on it,” Arnold said), a goal that is not as easily attainable as one would hope. The Non-GMO Project estimates that 94 percent of soy and 88 percent of corn in this country has been genetically modified. But the decision to label was simple.

“It came from a belief that people have a right to know what’s in the food they eat,” Arnold said simply.

In an increasingly savvy consumer marketplace, Chipotle’s food philosophy is resonating. Arnold said that while the restaurant chain has adopted sustainable practices because “it’s the right thing to do,” their customer base is expanding thanks to a populace more concerned with the integrity of their food and the sustainable practices used to produce it.

Chipotle steps up to the plate. Their latest grill in Gurnee, IL is the nation’s first ever Platinum LEED-certified restaurant. Arnold said that eliminating GMO’s from the menu is still a high priority. They are currently developing a new restaurant concept called ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen – a sort of Southeast Asian Chipotle.

“Ultimately,” Arnold said, “We will have more impact with our vision to change the way people think about fast food if we’re serving more than tacos and burritos.”

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