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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Food with Integrity

Chipotle’s fresh Mex

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When you think of fast food, what words come to mind? Integrity? Sustainability? Health? Probably not—but Steve Ells is on a quest to change that. The founder and CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill is steering his 15-year-old company with a philosophy called “Food with Integrity,” an ambitious commitment to source the highest-quality food from farmers who care deeply about the welfare of their animals, their land and their communities.

Ells, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America, opened his first restaurant in Denver in 1993, modeling Chipotle after the taquerias in the Mission District of San Francisco. Chipotle’s fast-casual restaurants offer a very focused menu. First, guests pick a wrapper—burrito, taco, bowl or salad—and then move down the service line, adding ingredients such as cilantro-lime rice, black beans, pinto beans, sour cream, cheese, guacamole, romaine lettuce and four house-made salsas: fresh tomato salsa (mild), tomatillo red-chili salsa (hot), tomatillo green-chili salsa (medium hot) and roasted chili-corn salsa (medium).

In 1999, Ells read about Paul Willis and the natural farming practiced at Niman Ranch in Ed Behr’s The Art of Eatingquarterly. “After I read Behr’s article, I knew that the trouble with our carnitas wasn’t the recipe. It was the commodity pork we had been using,” Ells explains. “The majority of pigs in this country are raised in extremely inhumane conditions. Often, thousands of pigs are crowded into a single confined facility.”

Their confinement makes the animals more prone to disease, “so they are typically given antibiotics for most of their lives,” Ells says. Inspired to find an alternative, he embarked on a mission to work with suppliers who are committed to pursuing healthy, humane and sustainable practices when it comes to raising animals and growing produce.

To meet Chipotle’s “naturally raised” criteria, animals are fed a pure vegetarian diet, never given antibiotics and treated humanely. In addition to all of their pork, more than 80% of Chipotle’s chicken and more than 50% of their beef is naturally raised, Ells says. And Chipotle will continue until all of the meats in all of its restaurants meet this standard, he adds.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a synthetic hormone that is injected into a dairy cow to artificially increase milk production. In 2007, Chipotle began serving sour cream free of the synthetic growth hormone, due to its perceived effects on animal and human health. As for the veggies, Chipotle increases the amount of organically grown beans it purchases for its restaurants every year—it is currently serving 35% organically grown black and pinto beans. Chipotle must wait for the supply of naturally raised meats and organic produce to meet its large-scale demand, Ells notes. Because of its size (there are more than 670 locations) and influence, Chipotle has created a market for meats raised in a healthier environment and produce grown through sustainable farming methods.

And Chipotle couldn’t have done it without McDonald’s, Ells says. The big, bad, fast-food giant that was scrutinized in both Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me had, at one time, a controlling interest in Chipotle Mexican Grill.

“There is, unfortunately, sometimes a stigma associated with working with McDonald’s,” says Jessica Rock, Chipotle’s local store marketing consultant. “But we had a great relationship with them. Being the powerhouse that McDonald’s is and the fantastic relationships that they have out there in the community and with suppliers, they were able to help us find the best suppliers for our gourmet ingredients … McDonald’s really allowed us to do what we do best.”

McDonald’s has now fully divested its investment in Chipotle and the fresh-Mex chain became a public company in 2006. On Thursday, Jan. 31, Chipotle opened its newest Milwaukee-area restaurant at 2711 N. Mayfair Road, near Mayfair Mall. The reason to eat at Chipotle is as simple as better-tasting burritos, and no less ambitious than to revolutionize the way America grows, gathers, serves and eats its food.

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Photos by Kate Engbring