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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mexican Greens

Chipotle with integrity

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Since the ’70s, Mexican food has become America’s food. Where would we be as a nation without nachos? But the traditional diet of peasant Mexico, which packed loads of protein into simple dishes, often underwent an unhealthy transformation north of the border. Burritos swelled to supersize scale and sour cream proliferated even as spices were neutered to gringo taste. Salsa became little better than runny ketchup at some chain restaurants. And many locally owned taquerias kept prices down by cutting corners on quality.

Chipotle Mexican Grill set out to change the direction of America’s favorite ethnic food and set an example for the entire food service industry. Since the first Chipotle opened in 1993 near the University of Denver campus, it has become one of the country’s fastest-growing fast-food chains. Even as the Great Recession shows no signs of abating, founder-visionary Steve Ells plans to open 100 new outlets in 2009.

The success rises on the reputation of the food served, which retains the tastiness of familiar Mexican-American dishes while jettisoning anything unhealthy. The beef, chicken, pork and dairy products come from animals that roam freely in barnyards and pastures. Fed a healthy vegetarian diet, they don’t sicken like agribusiness animals. Antibiotics aren’t needed and growth hormones are banned. Last year Chipotle unveiled a plan to ensure that at least a quarter of the produce used in each store is grown locally.

While the menu is standardized, the architecture is not. No two Chipotles are identical in floor plan and appearance, although most are constructed from a mixture of organic and man-made materials. Cleaning chemicals are minimized for a toxin-free environment. One ecological downside seems endemic to any fast-food vendor: the enormous quantities of paper and aluminum wrappers and napkins recycled daily.

Chipotle’s employees are governed by an unusual principle, at least in American workplaces. Juan Valenzuela, the marketing consultant for Wisconsin, has cut lettuce, grilled meat and given change at the register. The janitors can cook. Everyone knows how to do everything.

While many of Chipotle’s return customers are drawn by the lure of organic goods, the chain would not have succeeded if the food weren’t tasty. Most everything is made from fresh ingredients, down to the lime juice in the margaritas. Guacamole is prepared several times daily from avocados, jalapenos, chopped onions, cilantro and salt, mixed by hand in huge metal bowls with Goliath’s own potato masher. The fresh-baked chips are among the best anywhere. The burritos are every inch as big as those of competitors‚ but snap and crackle with vivid flavor and texture. The meat is tender and moist. And you can skip the meat altogether. What’s fun about Chipotle is the ability to customize your own burrito, salad or taco from a wider-than-unusual array of options.

Chipotle is taking its philosophy a step further, designing restaurants on green principles. The recently opened outlet in Gurnee, Ill., is powered by a wind turbine, was built from recycled materials and is furnished with energy-efficient lights, restrooms and kitchen appliances. “Food with integrity” is Ells’ slogan, and he appears willing to extend the concept to embrace all aspects of Chipotle, from ceiling lights to floorboards.

Chipotle Mexican Grill
600 E. Ogden Ave., 223-4710 3232 S. 27th St., 389-1380 2717 N. Mayfair Road, 258-6649 $ CC: VS, MC, AmEx, DS Smoke-Free Wheelchair Accessible


Chipotle Mexican Grill | Photos courtesy of Chipotle

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