I never have much good to say about chain restaurants, but I've long touted Chipotle Mexican Grill as being better than the rest. The two main two reasons: Its tacos and burritos are tastier than any dishes served up by McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, et al. And there's its commitment to "Food with Integrity." Most of the animals used in Chipotle's offerings contain no antibiotics or growth hormones; Sources include Niman Ranch pork, Bell & Evans chicken, and Meyer Natural Angus beef. Chipotle buys more naturally raised meat than any restaurant business in America, which has a ripple effect among other chains as well as among suppliers. For instance, Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, credited Chipotle for its decision to eliminate sow stalls. That's better for you and I, and also for the animals, who can roam freely during life and are given a diet of vegetarian feed with no animal byproducts.
Other ingredients are similarly stellar -- zero artificial colors or flavorings, zero trans fatty acids, zero sugar, zero nuts, and zero eggs. Forty percent of the beans used are organic. And in recent years, Chipotle's Locally Grown Initiative has increased the use of produce from local farms (within 350 miles from the participating restaurants). One such supplier is Pero Family Farms in Delray Beach.
This brings us to Chipotle's relationships with farmers, and also to tomato growers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. I spoke with Chris Arnold, director of communications for Chipotle, about both matters.
"This year we'll have between 50 and 60 farms around the country that will provide local produce," says Arnold. "The things that we get locally, depending on the market, are red onions, romaine lettuce, jalapeño peppers, bell peppers, and oregano. Some of those grow better than others in certain places." He adds that "quality and consistency" are the two things they look for -- and are not always easy to find -- from the smaller local farms.
In 2011, Chipotle purchased nearly 1.5 million pounds of local Florida produce, and this year the company has already sourced more local Florida produce than it did in all of 2011. The peppers from Pero Family Farms in Delray Beach are beautiful. You can purchase the sweet (and colorful) mini-peppers and "stoplight peppers" (red, yellow, green) at Publix market. Chipotle's jalapeños are also sourced from Pero Farms, which has been a family business in Delray since 1908.
I mentioned to Chris that anytime I write about Chipotle, it brings comments regarding the company's relationship with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Florida tomato growers.
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"What's important to understand about the nature of this issue," he starts, "is that when the CIW started their program in the mid-1990's, they were originally targeting growers. Then they switched gears, targeting large-scale buyers like Chipotle, or McDonald's, or Taco Bell... to get the buyers to put economic pressure on the growers so the growers would change their practices.
"Now more than 90% of all the tomatoes grown in Florida are grown under CIW's program; so in effect, they won. Anyone who wants to participate in their program can, and we've been doing that since 2009. We only work with growers who have signed on with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. We're working directly with growers rather than through an agreement with CIW. The result is the same in terms of benefits to the workers. Workers receive the better wages, growers are bound by CIW protocols and codes of conduct, and the CIW has the authority to audit the growers based on the contract between the grower and CIW."
Chipotle CEO Steve Ellis' philosophy of using fresher, healthier ingredients, tied in to his company's enormous purchasing power, has helped farmers, animals, and customers as much as just about anyone else in the food industry -- and certainly way more than anyone in the fast food industry (in other words, you won't be tasting any local peppers in the new Burger King snack wrap). That's good enough for me.