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In Trial Run, Chipotle Heads to the Farm

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."

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