In Trial Run, Chipotle Heads to the Farm
For Chains, Buying Locally Still Means a Long Journey
By Jane Black Washington Post Staff Writer
Photo by Stephanie Gross for the Washington Post
Wednesday, March 26, 2008; F01
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Chipotle Mexican Grill executives decided to begin serving local pork from one of the most famous farmers in America, they did the opposite of what most big companies would do when jumping on the latest trend. They said nothing.
There was no fanfare or official announcement. Even when the pork turned up in the first carnitas burrito last summer, no change was made to the menu or the $5.75 price. It wasn’t until last fall, two months after Polyface Farm’s pork made its debut, that a sign was posted on the days it was available. “We wanted to start slow, for us and for them,” says Phil Petrilli, Chipotle’s operations director for the northeast region. “This is a farm that’s used to dropping off 12 chickens at the local restaurant.” One of the fastest-growing chains in the nation, Chipotle serves about 350 pounds of pork per week in Charlottesville alone and more than 5 million pounds annually at its 700 restaurants.
This month, Chipotle hopes to serve 100 percent Polyface pork in Charlottesville. But that success comes after 17 months of complex negotiations and logistics, including buying extra cooking equipment, developing new recipes, adjusting work schedules and investing in temperature-monitoring technology for Polyface’s delivery van. In recent months, Petrilli has visited the Charlottesville outlet about every two weeks, four times as often as he visits other restaurants in the region.
Chipotle’s experiment is emblematic of the enormous hurdles that face national chains hoping to embrace the eat-local trend that has until now been limited to exclusive restaurants and farmers markets. Food grown by small local farmers may taste fresher and require less fuel to transport, but the quantities rarely are large enough to sustain one busy restaurant, let alone hundreds. “We get calls all the time from individual farmers saying, ‘I’ve got three pigs,’ or ‘two cows,’ and there’s nothing we can do with those quantities,” says Ann Daniels, Chipotle’s director of purchasing.
And yet, some regional chains and national food service providers are launching their own buy-local experiments. For some, like Chipotle, it fits their corporate mission. Others are driven by rising concerns about food safety, skyrocketing fuel costs and growing consumer demand for fresh, seasonal food. Whatever the reason, the attempts are spurring a massive overhaul of the way these businesses operate, from the way they plan menus and pick suppliers to the way they think about food costs and distribution.
From Theory to Practice
Petrilli was already familiar with Polyface when Chipotle opened in Charlottesville in October 2006. Owner Joel Salatin had become something of a celebrity after Michael Pollan hailed him as a hero of the organic farm movement in his 2006 best-seller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Petrilli also was a member of the Polyface buying club, which periodically drops off meat and eggs for members in the Washington area.
The next month, Chipotle founder Steve Ells and President Monty Moran visited Charlottesville. Petrilli drove them the 48 miles to Swoope to tour the farm. Ells, a classically trained chef, was enamored of Salatin’s holistic vision of farming and, like Petrilli, wanted to work with Polyface to determine whether it would be possible to source locally. “There’s a huge cost to doing things this way,” Petrilli says. “We’re spending money to find out how and if we can bring small farmers with our values into the system.”
Originally, Ells wanted to buy Polyface chicken, but the hurdles — the birds would have to be trucked to a federally inspected slaughterhouse — and the quantity that Chipotle demanded were too high. Salatin, meanwhile, wanted to move pork. His fine-dining clients and buying club members couldn’t get enough of the chops and loins. (It’s a company joke that Petrilli orchestrated the whole deal just to get his own personal fix.) But Salatin needed a customer to buy shoulders and legs, tougher cuts that are perfect for braising and wrapping in burritos.
Chipotle has long been a pioneer in bringing sustainable and organic food to the masses. In 2000, the chain began buying all its pork from Niman Ranch, an alliance of small farms that was then largely supplying white-tablecloth restaurants and high-end grocery stores including Whole Foods Market. Like Polyface, Niman had plenty of demand for the chops and the loins, and Chipotle’s business allowed it to expand. “Every time Chipotle added a restaurant, we could add a new farm,” remembers founder Bill Niman. At the beginning, about 75 small farms were part of Niman Ranch. Today there are more than 500.
Chipotle now has several pork suppliers and can brag that all the meat for its carnitas is naturally raised; the pigs live on pasture and are never given antibiotics or feed with animal byproducts. If supply can meet its growing demand — this year Chipotle plans to open 125 restaurants and expects to continue double-digit sales growth at current outlets — the company soon will serve only naturally raised chicken and beef, too. Fifteen percent of the 375 tons of black beans it served in 2006 were organic; that’s as much as the company could get its hands on.
Sourcing locally was trickier, however. The pork for all 67 of its mid-Atlantic restaurants is cooked at a kitchen in Manassas, so Chipotle had to refit the Charlottesville branch to accommodate an oven where the Polyface pork could be braised, plus buy pots, pans and a cooling rack. There were two reasons: If Polyface meat were processed with all the other pork, it would be impossible to be certain what was being served in Charlottesville. Also, Chipotle chef Joel Holland had developed a recipe to ensure that carnitas made with Polyface pork, which tends to have a different texture due to higher fat content, tasted the way customers expected.
Chipotle also had to work with Salatin to ramp up supply. It took 17 months to arrange for custom cuts of the meat and to set up safe delivery, issues that usually are the responsibility of the supplier alone.
For example, Polyface makes its deliveries, all within a four-hour drive of the farm, in a converted bus with 150 Coleman coolers and ice packs. Unlike big producers, Salatin doesn’t own a refrigerated truck and, he says, he wasn’t ready to lay out $30,000 to buy one.
His system works for small restaurants, but it didn’t measure up to Chipotle’s strict food safety policies. After much research, Chipotle bought digital temperature strips for Polyface that monitor and record temperatures inside the coolers during transport from slaughterhouse to restaurant. “These are the hurdles that the institutional food system has created, and the average local foodie has no idea why farmers like us can’t access a larger portion of the market,” Salatin says. “We’ve been a square peg in a round hole for Chipotle. But at all the steps along the way that usually hold these deals up, they have fought to keep us on track.”
Going Local, Nationwide
Forays by other companies into local sourcing confirm that it requires a strong philosophical commitment and a lot of hand-holding. A small farmer who wants to scale up needs a variety of technical and financial assistance, says Rich Pirog, associate director of Iowa State University‘s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture: “They need to provide easy ordering, reliable delivery, assurances about safety, and they don’t know how to do that.” In many cases, Pirog says, it’s easier for small producers to sell at the farmers market.
That’s why Clyde’s Restaurant Group, an early proponent of local foods in the Washington area, had a dedicated driver to collect summer produce from farms in the region. But by 1998, with 10 restaurants, the company found it too time-consuming and costly to keep up the practice. Rather than abandon local farms, Clyde’s cut a deal with a local distributor to perform the rounds, hauling the more than 20,000 pounds of asparagus and 42,000 pounds of tomatoes that today’s 13 restaurants go through in a single season. “It’s really affected our food costs,” says John Guattery, Clyde’s corporate chef. “But I think we would ruin ourselves if we didn’t do it. I think people believe in it.”
One large regional chain, Burgerville, is also keeping the faith. With 39 restaurants in Oregon and Washington, Burgerville has been sourcing locally since it was created in 1961 because that was just the way you did things back then, says Jack Graves, chief cultural officer for parent company the Holland Inc. Today, its naturally raised beef comes from Country Natural Beef, an alliance of cattle ranchers mostly in the Pacific Northwest. Yogurt for the smoothies comes from Portland. And the famous Walla Walla Onion Rings are on the menu only between June and August, when the sweet onions are in season. Graves estimates that roughly 75 percent of ingredients come from Oregon and Washington.
Burgerville isn’t religious about sourcing locally. “Not everything is available here,” Graves says. The key is “having the will to do it and seeing the value in it. People appreciate that we take care of the local economy and the local environment. It’s a way of doing business that makes money.”
National food service companies also are making a push into local purchasing. Sodexo, which serves 9.3 million meals daily at U.S. hospitals, schools, colleges and special-events venues, is shifting to a more decentralized ordering and distribution system. It works with 70 regional produce distributors representing more than 600 farmers that individual chefs can turn to for seasonal, local produce. Bon Appetit Management, which runs more than 400 dining rooms at universities, museums and corporations, has made local sourcing a centerpiece of its brand. Some staples such as salt or coffee are purchased centrally, but individual chefs largely do their own ordering. They are encouraged to forge relationships with farmers and, in a limited way, invest in the farms to create a steady supply.
For example, in 2006 Bon Appetit spent $10,000 to help a farmer near its Grove City College dining room erect four greenhouse tunnels on his farm. At Oberlin College, where 45 percent of food supplies are bought locally, the company has invested $15,000 to help build greenhouses and purchase a bio-fueled heater. The heater runs exclusively on used fry oil donated by the kitchen. In 2004, Bon Appetit mandated that 20 percent of all purchases be made locally. In 2006, the company average was 30 percent, accounting for $55 million in local purchases. “For so many people, it’s still about price,” says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “If a fast-food vendor can get meat for seven cents a pound less, then they’ll drop their supplier. For us, it’s about building relationships and knowing we’ll have a better product over the long run.”
That’s what Chipotle is trying to do in Charlottesville. The company estimates that it pays about a 20 percent premium for Polyface Farms pork. But that price gap could narrow. Salatin says he hopes to teach more farmers about his methods and loop them into the supply chain. And rising animal feed and oil prices will make it harder for industrial producers to grow cheap food.
“My hat’s off to Chipotle,” Salatin says. “I’m honored to be part of an aggressive attempt to rewrite the food model.”