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The Ethical Burrito: Chipotle Makes Fast-Food Nation Sustainable

The Mexican chain changes consumer expectations, one free-range barbacoa taco at a time.

Erica Grieder's weekly series explores how businesses are responding to consumers, governments, and markets to make their practices and their products more sustainable.

When my friend came to visit Austin from her home in Spain, I took her out for the finest gourmet fast-food burrito available within a mile of my house. She had never been to a Chipotle Mexican Grill.

A placard touted the chain’s commitment to respectable food sourcing: happy pigs, healthy chickens, local produce, etc. When I asked, the three women working assured me that people care about that campaign. Customers, one added, ask about it all the time. My friend, peering over the counter, wasn’t one of them. She was excited about the brown rice. If you eat corn, rice, and beans together, she said, you get exactly the right amino acids to make a perfect protein.

Good food is a complicated topic. As is often the case, the best approach depends on your ethical priorities and personal constraints. Some animal-rights advocates emphasize the need to eat humanely raised meat; others hold out for vegetarianism or veganism. Environmentalists worry about pesticides, soil depletion, and the energy used in producing ingredients. Grad students get curious about plant-based proteins.

The interesting thing about Chipotle, the burrito and taco chain, is that it has tried to tackle all these goals and more. Its “Food with Integrity” philosophy calls for free-range meat, hormone-free dairy, and locally sourced produce when practical. For more than ten years, Chipotle has bought its pork through Niman Ranch, a sustainable farm based in California. As of last year, for example, all of the beef in its barbacoa is naturally raised, meaning that the cows are not treated with hormones or antibiotics, and they are fed an entirely vegetarian diet.

Steve Ells, the co-founder and CEO, has explained that he was first moved to go green in the quest for better flavor. But the idea, as the company describes it now, is to use ingredients “raised with respect for the animals, the environment, and the farmers.” No other fast-food chain has tried that, although most have tweaked their menus to accommodate various consumer concerns, at least superficially—McDonald’s, for example, now offers apple slices in its Happy Meals.

And in recent years, few chain restaurants have been as successful as Chipotle. In the third quarter of 2011 the chain’s revenue was $592 million, up 24.1 percent from the third quarter a year ago. Some of the extra money came from new restaurants—Chipotle opened 32 new spots during those three months, bringing its national total to 1,162. The revenue increase also reflects a rise in sales, up 11.2 percent.

Chipotle is not the fastest-growing fast-food chain in America. That would be Five Guys Burgers and Fries, according to a March analysis of chains with more than $200 million in sales from research firm Technomic . But it may be the most notable, precisely because of the fuss it makes over food issues. The Food with Integrity philosophy commits Chipotle to higher input costs and supply-chain risk. Premium meat, for example, costs more than the factory-farmed kind, and there are fewer people supplying it.

Chipotle’s approach has attracted admiration and irritation. “They tell the customers the story of where the food comes from,” philosopher Peter Singer said in a 2006 interview with an Australian television program, “whereas the typical fast food chain does exactly the reverse—it tries to hide where it comes from.”

But it can all become a little sanctimonious for a burrito chain. In August, Chipotle released a lushly animated ad, set to Willie Nelson’s cover of “The Scientist,” that seems to imply that the chain, in its role as a big buyer of sustainable food, can solve the problems of factory farming, highway congestion, air pollution, water pollution, and, if I’m following this correctly, 21st-century malaise.

The debate is inevitable. Chipotle is still a fast-food company, not a locavore bistro. Nobody is cuddling the chickens; the carnitas pigs aren’t like their pampered Spanish cousins that only eat acorns. If the avocados from California aren’t available, Chipotle will buy them from Chile or Mexico. It can only be as green as its business model allows, but to the extent that it is green, it might as well talk it up.

The marketing campaign might actually have some positive externalities. Setting aside the integrity chatter, a more parsimonious explanation for Chipotle’s success would be that it’s selling good burritos in a country where good burritos are widely appreciated but occasionally scarce. In some cities, Chipotle could credibly claim that it has the best burrito in town. In others, it could at least claim to be better than Taco Bell, which was sued earlier this year by an Alabama law firm claiming that its “taco meat filling” is only 36 percent beef. Even in Austin, which has plenty of Mexican and Tex-Mex food—not to mention enough local, organic, vegan, and macrobiotic options to placate the most virtuous eater—the market supports several bustling Chipotles.

That matters because Chipotle clearly thinks its customers care about hormone-free cheese. Even if most of them don’t, Chipotle is the first big fast-food chain to make food quality an integral part of its branding. As such, it’s helping to buoy the market for ethically sourced food—and if that’s what the burrito fans are getting, they may be getting used to expecting it.

Photo courtesy of Chipotle

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