Building Better Burritos

Posted by Morgan Clendaniel

Steve Ells founded Chipotle Burritos in 1993 in Denver. Nearly two decades later, his restaurant has expanded to almost 900 locations nationwide (with a European expansion soon to be underway in London). What's remarkable is that during that expansion, the quality of food at the restaurant chain has improved, thanks to its Food with Integrity program, which strives to buy naturally and humanely raised meat and locally sourced produce. Recently, Chipotle-already the largest buyer of naturally raised meat in the country-announced that natural-meat godfather Bill Niman would be coming on to help further the goals of the Food with Integrity Program. We spoke to Ells about his conversion to better foods, his work with Niman, and how high-quality fast food performs during a recession.GOOD: Chipotle recently hired Bill Niman to help with your Food with Integrity program. How did that come about, and how is he involved?STEVE ELLS: I met Bill nine years ago. I was looking for different pork-pork that actually tasted great-and I wasn't finding that with my suppliers. It wasn't great pork because of the way it was raised. And so I read this article in Ed Bahr's Art of Eating where he talked about the Niman ranch. And so I hooked up with Bill and went up to Iowa and visited some of these new farms. But I didn't have anything to compare it to, so I said: "Well, isn't this the way all pigs are raised?" And they said, "No, most of the pigs in the United States-better than 95 percent of them-are raised in confinement. You should probably just see it for yourself." And I did. I visited many different confinement operations. And what I saw really, really horrified me. It was a really bad experience. But I'm really glad I had this experience. It's really important to understand what goes on inside those buildings.People are raising pork in a way that is really not sustainable. It's not pleasant for the animals-and not pleasant is a real understatement. It's really brutal. It's like torturing the animals. The stench is terrible. They're crowded in there and going crazy and biting each other's tails and biting the metal bars. They're in their own waste, which is liquefied and put in these holding lagoons outside of these warehouses. And that poses all of these contamination problems-the stench in the air is just terrible and it's not anything anyone would really want to live around. And then there's this problem of all the antibiotics that have to be used when animals live in that kind of close confinement-to keep them healthy and promote growth. And that has a slew of health ramification for humans in that we're creating super-bugs that are resistant to antibiotics. And on top of all that, the pork doesn't taste very good.So back to your question, How is Bill Niman involved? We continue to spend a lot of time together exploring better ways to supply our customers with the wholesome best tasting sustainably raised foods.G: So 100 percent of your pork is now humanely raised? What about beef?SE: If you look at pork, chicken, and beef, by far, the priority was pork. Part of it was growing conditions-we don't raise beef in the kind of confinement that we raise pork. There aren't the same kinds of factory farms. Certainly there are feed lots, but they're not nearly to the level of exploitation that the confinement operations are. So one hundred percent of our pork is naturally raised without antibiotics, with all vegetarian-diets, and humanely raised either in open pastures or in deeply bedded barns so they have room to roam around and run around and dig and things like that.One hundred percent of our chicken is also naturally raised-again, no antibiotics, all-vegetarian diets, and they have more room than the traditional commodity counterpart. And I believe about 60 percent of our beef today is antibiotic and hormone-free. And again, that's just a supply issue. We would buy more if there were more, but unfortunately, the supply is very very limitedG: So we're suffering from a lack of supply, not demand, is that what you're saying?SE: We have a demand, but when you talk about the country as a whole, people are buying cheaper food. I think it's a problem in this country: We don't pay for the fair price, the real price of food. And that happens to be a little bit more than what is commonly charged.G: How are you dealing with the recession?SE: We have lost some transactions for sure. A lot of other people have also. Our food costs are higher. We spend more on food than any of our competitors, but the food tastes better. Our customers have responded to it.If you look at the last nine years since introducing Food with Integrity ingredients and having to make modest price adjustments along the way, during that time, we had double digit same store growth, year after year, while bringing these quality store ingredients. So yes, I think it's something that customers are starting to want more, and I think the demand is going to go up as they continue to understand the ramifications of not having a sustainable food supply. Not only on the taste of our food but also on our health.G: What about local food. Isn't that equally important?SE: We have basic produce items: onions, peppers, lettuce, cilantro, oregano, garlic, and everyday garden things in the summer months or the winter season. We try to buy as much of this locally as possible, and we exceeded our initial goals of having twenty-five percent of any particular item come from local sources. We're just going to keep pushing that and pushing that. The distribution costs go down, obviously.  The quality of freshness goes up.  And it's great to support the local farmers.Unfortunately, things like cilantro in Minnesota in the winter will not be plentiful, so we'll always have to rely on distribution from warmer climates. I don't think we'll ever be able to be 100 percent local and seasonal, but at least we can do our very best when things are available.