It’s easy to attack fast food. The list of negatives drags on: its ties to the obesity epidemic; the environmental costs of sourcing cheap food; the waste that ends up in landfills. Despite all the talk we hear in the media about making healthier food choices, fast food will always be around: drive through any city or along an interstate highway, and fast food restaurants are still going strong, with new locations always under construction. After years of decline, McDonald’s has revitalized itself with a new menu: some items are relatively healthy, but many of its items are still calorie and fat bombs. Yet many of us are always on the go; is it possible to have a quick bite and feel better about what we eat?
Denver-based Chipotle may have the answer. The burrito chain was once part of the McDonald’s empire, but has stood alone since 2006, when McDonald’s shed many brands in order to focus on its core golden arches business. Four years later, Chipotle has thrived; the company is the eighth fastest-growing restaurant chain in the United States, raking in over US$1.5 billion in sales in 2009. What’s even more remarkable about Chipotle’s rise, however, is that the company has grown while buying ethically-raised meat and working to source more locally-grown produce.
Steve Ells, Chipotle’s CEO, is behind the company’s commitment to serve “food with integrity.” When he started Chipotle 17 years ago, his focus was on using fresh ingredients. Ells quickly learned, however, the “fresh” was not enough. He had visited the confined operations (Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO) at which most American meat is raised, and appalled, he decided to buy the pork for Chipotle’s carnitas burritos from Niman Ranch, where pigs are allowed to roam around and be . . . pigs.
Other ingredients in your Chipotle burrito also should cause less consumer guilt. Last year, the company announced that the chain would start buying at least 35% of its produce from a network of local farms. Note the emphasis on local: it would be easy to criticize Chipotle for not insisting on organic, but there is no point in buying “organic” if you are shipping ingredients across the country. Furthermore, many family farms are not certified “organic” because the bureaucracy involves more red tape than what a farm owner can realistically afford. Finally, Chipotle wraps up its burritos by using cheese that is made from vegetable rennet.
Chipotle is looking beyond its menu and is slowly retrofitting its restaurants to become more energy efficient. Working with Standard Renewable Energy, the company installed solar panels on 75 of its restaurants in the Denver, Dallas, and San Antonio metropolitan areas, which is expected to avoid over 20,000 tons of CO2 emissions during the life of this project. Three of its outlets are LEED certified, including one in Illinois that sports an on-site wind turbine.
So we have fast, fresh food that is not a farce: Chipotle has demonstrated that having a quick meal does not have to involve mystery ingredients (customers can watch their food be prepared in front of them), and have a price point that will not break the bank. The company should reach 1000 outlets in a few years, yet is dedicated to sourcing humanely-raised meat and locally harvested ingredients. The restaurants are clean and modern, emphasizing freshness and healthful eating, not with browbeating messages about being “green” without explaining what “green” means. And when you realize that a Happy Meal can sit on a shelf for a year without decomposing, eating at a restaurant that tries to make a difference in our health and local wealth is a pretty easy choice to make.