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In Trial Run, Chipotle Heads to the Farm

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

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.

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