Chipotle Talks Local Produce

The Mexican food chain will source 35% of certain produce items from local farms.

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Chipotle, the quick-service Mexican restaurant that dishes out hearty, foil-wrapped burritos is expanding its local foods program - last year, they sourced 25 percent of one bulk produce item used in each store from a local farm, and this year, they're expanding the program to 35 percent. For a chain with more than 860 restaurants, it's a large committment, but they've kept surprisingly mum about it. I talked to Chipotle's Chris Arnold, director of media relations, about the meaning and growing popularity of local food.

What was the catalyst for Chipotle to use local foods?
Better tasting food. We really believe that fresh ingredients from more sustainable sources are the way to go. Adding local produce to some of the things we had already been doing, including naturally-raised meats and dairy products made with milk from cows without RBGH, was the logical place to go. We're looking for sources for all of the ingredients that we use that share our commitment to raising animals and produce in ways that are better for the environment. How difficult was it to integrate the local foods program?

We had to find and build network of local produce farms. The real challenge is finding farms big enough to fulfill our needs. They're mid-sized farms that are 500 acres to 2,000 acres - bigger than farmers' markets, but a far cry from the big agri-business. We need a lot of ingredients, but unfortunately these better suppliers are more of a niche than in the mainstream. We started small, just as we did with naturally-raised meats, and we plan on growing [the local produce program]. Last year, when the program began, the goal was 25 percent of one produce item. This year, the goal is 35 percent for every store. It's a pattern of incremental steps.

Do you think this program will continue to be unique to Chipotle, or will other fast food restaurants jump on board?
Could others follow? Sure, and we hope that they do. The more people want this better food, the more the supply will move to meet the demand.

Do you think it's feasible that Chipotle could ever go 100 percent local company-wide for certain produce items?
It might be on a seasonal basis. Our restaurants offer the same menu everywhere year-round, and that is the way our concept is built, so buying romaine lettuce locally in Minneapolis in winter is a tall order.  What do you think of other companies' attempts to rebrand 'local'? For example, a potato chip company says that their chips are local because they're grown near the processing plant.

More generally, I think that the buyer should beware. Things like 'local' and 'natural' have become such buzzwords in the food industry and you have a lot of companies kind of glomming onto them to help them sell more of whatever it is they sell. That's do-able in many of these cases because words like 'local' and 'natural' and 'fresh' in this case don't have standard definitions. With our local produce, it is generally coming from within 200 miles or less of our restaurants. 'Naturally-raised meats' means raised in a natural way: no hormones, and fed a pure vegetarian diet with no animal byproducts.

In the National Geographic Greendex there was a statistic that Americans are less likely to eat local than most other countries studied. Certainly the locavore movement is getting more popular, but what will it take to make it really stick?
I think certainly a great awareness [will help]. There are tremendous benefits to eating produce grown near where you live - it's not spending days in transportation, and it's much fresher, since it's picked closer to the day it's eaten. There are also environmental benefits, in terms of how land is used, and transportation, when typical produce in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles from where it's grown to where it's consumed. You're certainly cutting down on fuel.

You aren't very vocal about the local program in the restaurants, but your survey said that 51 percent of adults found it important to eat local. Will there be a bigger publicity push?
It's certainly a fine line. We want our customers to understand all of the decisions we make with the food we serve, and many don't because we aren't vocal about it. Often, people don't want to think about the decisions behind the food they eat while they're eating it - they feel like it's preaching. It will be done with a light hand rather than a heavy hand. We want people to understand, but we don't want to impose vision and values on them. More: Restaurants That May Fail