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Fresh and fast: Chipotle Mexican Grill chain buys from family farms

Sunday, May 20, 2007
By Marlene Parrish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sing it, Willie: "On the road again. Just can't wait to get on the road again. ... Goin' places that I've never been. Seein' things that I may never see again, and I can't wait to get on the road again."

Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson, you can bet your braids you'll have to eat road food -- fast food.

In this day and age when we have to worry about E-coli, artery-clogging ingredients, killer pet foods, product recalls and a food supply so out of whack that the Food and Drug Administration named a food czar, you have to wonder where to go when you want a quick, no-frills, let's-grab-a-bite meal.

But, cheer up, Willie. Not all "fast" eateries are created equal.

One restaurant chain stands out: Chipotle Mexican Grill. The company has a conscience about the food it serves, the food supply and the environment. With about 560 sites nationwide, the chain is setting an example for its peers.

Too good to be true?

No, true.

Chipotle (pronounced chi-POTE-lay) Mexican Grill talks the talk and walks the walk.

"We believe in using meats from animals that are raised naturally, without hormones or antibiotics, and are fed a vegetarian diet," says Darnell Parrish, marketing coordinator for Pittsburgh and parts of Ohio. "We try to get food coming from sources that are better for the environment, better for the animals and better for the farmers who raise the animals. And we get out the best produce we can get. Our motto is 'Food with Integrity.'"

He added that Chipotle uses providers who are committed to pursuing healthy, humane and sustainable practices when it comes to raising animals and produce.

Since 2002, the chain has served 100 percent naturally raised pork. Nearly 66 percent of the chicken it serves is naturally raised, as is more than 40 percent of the beef. Chipotle will sell more than 30 million pounds of naturally raised meat this year, more than any other restaurant chain in the country. This year about 25 percent of its beans will be organic.

Because sourcing is an ongoing process, those numbers are all moving targets as additional supply becomes available. It's not official, but word has it that Chipotle will begin sourcing local produce soon.

That's the complicated and politically correct definition. It's easier to think of Chipotle Mexican Grill as the fast-food equivalent of Whole Foods Markets. Got it now?

The back story

Steve Ells, Chipotle's founder and CEO, isn't your basic tycoon. He's a guy with serious food chops. After graduating from the University of Colorado with a B.A. in art history, he went to the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 1990. Following that, Mr. Ells worked for two years as sous-chef under Jeremiah Tower at Stars, in San Francisco. A very, very big deal, that.

With no particular high-minded agenda, Mr. Ells opened the first Chipotle near the University of Denver in 1993. He figured that food served fast didn't have to be a "fast-food" experience. He applied the techniques he learned at the CIA and in professional kitchens, giving the nod to high-quality raw ingredients and classic cooking methods to make great-tasting burritos and tacos. He kept prices reasonable, and he went with a hip, friendly, casual environment. He hired friendly people, hung original art and played decent music.

It was a formula that clicked.

McDonald's took notice. They invested in Chipotle in 1998, funding its growth from 15 to 500 stores. Chipotle went public in January 2006, and McDonald's divested completely in the fall of 2006.

Still, it bothered Mr. Ells that Chipotle's pork carnitas didn't taste the way he wanted them to. They weren't bad, but as a chef, he knew they could be lots better.

One seminal day, the story goes, he was reading Edward Behr's food quarterly, The Art of Eating. There was a story about Niman Ranch pork and Paul Willis, a farmer in Thornton, Iowa, who ran his hog farming program the old way, before factory farms grew prominent in the 1960s and '70s. These farmers relied on care rather than chemicals, a phrase that was the seed of an eventual company tagline.

After he read Behr's article, Mr. Ells knew that the trouble with Chipotle's carnitas wasn't the recipe. It was the commodity pork they had been using.

On the bright side

Anyone who has read "Fast Food Nation" or "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is well aware of the dark side of modern agriculture. As one instance, it's known that the majority of pigs in this country are raised in inhumane conditions, some housed in group pens but in quarters that are so cramped they can't realize their piggy tendencies.

Animals are more prone to disease in confinement, so they are usually given antibiotics for most of their lives. They're also given growth hormones so they can grow more quickly and be processed more efficiently.

Long story condensed, in 2001, Chipotle began buying pork from the Niman Ranch cooperative of family farms that raises pigs humanely and without antibiotics or growth hormones. It was then that the company adopted its "Food With Integrity" mission to obtain the highest quality ingredients from the best sources and, in the process, help to create a more sustainable food chain that emphasizes the welfare of people, animals and the land.

Chipotle now supports 500 family farms through the use of naturally raised meats.

Here in Pittsburgh, Chipotle serves Niman Ranch meats, Bell & Evans dark meat chicken (because it's juicier and more flavorful) and Daisy brand sour cream, made from grade A cultured cream and milk. Nothing else.

In other markets you might find Ozark Mountain pork, duBreton pork, Springer Mountain chicken, Coleman natural beef and others.

If consumers vote with their forks, maybe Chipotle's good food practices will be indicative of an eventual change in the fast-food business.

Two in the 'Burgh

"Get antibiotics from your doctor, not your chicken."

"Pork from farmers, not factories."

"Chicken from farms, not big Pharm."

We don't see these Chipotle billboards in Pittsburgh because there are only two locations here, not a critical mass for an ad campaign. Here, word of mouth is what turns foot traffic into a stampede.

"Most of our stores are in areas where we get repeat business, no pun intended," laughs Robinson's assistant manager Bill Monahan. "We like to be in urban retail areas, but we still want to be part of a neighborhood."

As a good neighbor, Chipotle donates to local groups such as the Robert Morris University hockey team and other schools.

All Chipotle stores look alike, sort of. While each one uses the same building materials, each has a unique interior design. All original artwork is by sculptor Bruce Gueswel, who also designed the chairs.

Next time you head for IKEA, Target or Wal-Mart in Robinson Town Centre, check out Chipotle. Make that left up the hill at the Jared jewelry corner. You'll see Chipotle dead ahead across the parking lot, to the left of Wal-Mart.

The other local Chipotle is in Oakland.

And please, when you tell your friends about your experience, don't say "chi-POLE-tee." Say chi-POTE-lay.

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