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At Chipotle, Local is More Than Just Talk

True devotees of the sustainable food movement are scornful of what they see as attempts by major food-makers to jump on the bandwagon through superficial initiatives. As I discussed yesterday, Frito-Lay's recent attempt to cash in on pro-local sentiments did not go over well with local food activists.

Even Chipotle Mexican Grill seems to be getting a bit defensive over the trend. The burrito chain has long been committed to sustainable practices, but bragging about such things has never been its style. Yet in its latest press release, Chipotle emphasized that it "remains alone among restaurant companies in commitment to locally grown produce."

"We've been doing these things for many many years, since before green was in," spokesman Chris Arnold told me this afternoon. "And we've always done them because we thought it was the right thing do."

The company's record backs him up. Chipotle doesn't source 100 percent of its food from natural and sustainable sources, but over the years it's increased the proportion as it became feasible to do so without jacking up menu prices. Founder and CEO Steve Ells discussed this balance in a 2007 interview with Business Week. For example, he said, it would be terrific to offer organic vegetables, but in practical terms, that would be way too expensive.

But while Ells is practical, he's no green-washer. He publicly supports stronger USDA standards for naturally-raised meat. He's worked closely in the past with respected figures like Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch (though Niman has since disassociated himself with the company because of the direction its new owners have taken it) and Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, who is more or less the hero in Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma (a sort of gospel among the sustainable food movement).

When it comes to green initiatives, Chipotle has followed a gradual but consistent piecemeal strategy. In late 2006, it switched to sour cream free of artificial bovine growth hormones, and then a year later, it moved to do the same with all of its other dairy products. It introduced naturally-raised chicken and beef in different markets as it found the appropriate sources, and by May 2008 it could make that claim about 100 percent of its chickens.

The same progression has applied to the local food initiative. Chipotle pledged in 2008 to source at least 25 percent of at least one product at every store from small and midsize farms within 200 miles of that location, and now it's upping the pledge to 35 percent.

But green initiatives aren't what get people into the restaurant. In the '07 Business Week interview, Ells estimated that only 5 percent of customers knew anything about the company's "food with integrity" philosophy.

The rest come in because Chipotle tastes great, or they like spicy food, or they think it's a great value, or it's convenient, or the place looks cool. That's awesome; I love that.

I would like to have advertisements telling people about food with integrity on television, and plastered on billboards and in all the big magazines and national newspapers. But I don't think people want to hear it that way. That might be too preachy.

Will that change as green initiatives increasingly become a major competitive selling point? Maybe a little. But flashy advertising could lead to a loss of credibility.

Spokesman Chris Arnold put it this way: "In our business, good food is ultimately what wins. And we believe that making food from these better, more sustainably raised ingredients results in better food, and that's why people come to Chipotle."

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