What does a Chipotle burrito have to do with saving the world? Not much, you might guess. But across the sometimes muddled, sometimes clairvoyant transom of global media, a United Nations report calling for more investment in sustainable agriculture to jump start the global economy coincided with a Chipotle press release announcing the opening of its second LEED-certified location in the country, on Long Island, in Deer Park, New York (1090 The Arches Circle, Deer Park NY 11729; 631-586-0301).
Chipotle Mexican Grill has carved out a substantial niche in the "quick gourmet" restaurant industry, offering meals that may be more expensive than Taco Bell but deliver substantially more value in terms of using conscientious, good-quality ingredients. The chain’s 800 U.S. locations use Niman Ranch pork in the carnitasand Bell & Evans chicken. Sixty percent of the locations use Coleman beef; more will as soon as the supply is there.
The 52 million pounds of naturally raised meats Chipotle will buy in 2008 is more than any other restaurant company. And such massive purchasing has pushed more and more farmers to consider moving their hogs and cows outside onto pasture, giving their poultry more space and better feed, and rethinking their farming in general. (Its work with Bell & Evans paved the way for Panera Bread to start using the same chicken.)
Chipotle's sour cream and cheeses are made from hormone-free milk. A quarter of its black and pinto beans are organically grown. And, this past summer, Chipotle decided to purchase 25 percent of at least one of its produce items for each of its restaurants nationwide from small and mid-sized local farms throughout the growing season. The Charlottesville, Virginia, Chipotle buys pork from pasturing-pioneer Joel Salatin, while the chain buys produce for its Tri-State locations from Frank Donio Farms in Hammonton, New Jersey.
At a time when many chains are scaling back, Chipotle’s customer ranks are swelling. Even if these customers don’t understand what “sustainable” or “humanely raised” or “organic” mean, they know they should be eating more food carrying those descriptors. And from the corporate perspective, buying ingredients with a lower carbon footprint means less vulnerability to volatile oil markets and less liability when companies have to start paying to mitigate climate change. Paying a bit more for their meat in the short term means less likelihood of safety concerns—from antibiotic-resistant E. coli to farmworker abuse—over the longterm.
Which makes Chipotle exactly the kind of business that United Nations Environment Program’s executive director, Achim Steiner, was referring to when he said last week, "Transformative ideas need to be discussed and transformative decisions taken.” The alternative, he notes, is “more boom and bust cycles; a climate-stressed world and a collapse of fish stocks and fertile soils up to forest ecosystems.”
This thinking seems to have permeated Chipotle’s corporate culture. Not only does the chain hope to certify more and more of its locations as green, but it seems to understand that more and more Americans see their food as a way to change the world around them. The recent opening party for Chipotle’s 22nd New York City location at 25 West 45th Street was a fund-raiser for the learning garden, farm tours, and other education activities at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, New York. Everyone making a $5 donation received a free big, gourmet burrito or order of tacos, a bowl or a salad, along with crisp tortilla chips and piquant salsa and guacamole. (The first Chipotle in New York City opened in 2003 at 150 East 44th Street with a fund-raiser for CityMeals on Wheels.)
McDonald’s might have the Ronald McDonald House, but it would be hard to call that chain conscientious before it rethinks where it makes the toys for Happy Meals or where it gets the beef for its Big Macs. (McDonald’s was an early investor in Chipotle but divested when Chipotle went public.)
"The design of our restaurants complements the food," says Chipotle CEO Steve Ells. "The environment should add to the dining experience, not detract from it."
He was referring to the restaurant environment, of course, but he could have been talking about Mother Earth.
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