Pure Genius

Chipotle founder: Why grass-fed animals make a better burrito

Chipotle founder: Why grass-fed animals make a better burrito

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Chipotle's Steve Ells recently testified on Capitol Hill, explaining to members of Congress how he merged two unlikely business models: a successful fast food company and a supply chain that doesn't exploit animals or the environment.

Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, is all about serving “food with integrity.” (No doubt, it’s easier to sell that message now that Chipotle, once a subsidiary of McDonald’s, is no longer affiliated with Ronald McDonald or his colleagues.)

I talked to Ells recently about his commitment to humanely raised farm animals, better-tasting burritos and the idea that fast food doesn’t have to be junk food.

Last month you were on the Hill testifying in support of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which, if enacted, would reduce the use of human antibiotics given to animals to promote growth and prevent diseases common in unsanitary living conditions. What kind of feedback did you get at the Capitol?

I think there’s some serious interest, and a lot of people are starting to realize this is a topic that’s important to a lot more consumers now. They’re more curious about what they’re eating. I went to testify and talk about how we've made a successful business by using sustainably raised ingredients and how we don’t have to have exploiting as part of our business model.

What’s more difficult—making sure your food has integrity or changing the perception that fast food and integrity can never go hand-in-hand?

They’re both a challenge. I’d say a while ago people mostly thought about convenience in fast food. I think that we have shown that consumers can have fast food and great taste, and food with integrity. What I used to say is just because it’s fast doesn’t mean it has to be a typical fast food experience.

How has your “food with integrity” model evolved?

When I started Chipotle in July 1993, I used fresh ingredients and prepared it in front of the customer. That’s still true today, but along the way I realized fresh isn’t enough any more. We need to understand where it comes from and how it was raised.

For example, look at Niman Ranch pig farm compared to the confinement operations [Confined Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO] that supply most of the country. What I saw there was really horrific. I saw an environment where the animals were suffering, raised in giant buildings with no access to the outside, no fresh air, giant waste lagoons outside that create an awful stench and all sorts of environmental problems associated with these large scale operations, including polluted water and air. I compared that to Niman Ranch, where the pigs weren’t given growth hormones or antibiotics and they could roam around and be pigs.

It was an easy decision from an animal welfare standpoint and environmental standpoint, and the pork tasted much better. There was a slight price premium for us, so we increased the price, and we started selling more carnitas burritos. That gave me the idea that we should look into all the ingredients we feed our customers.

Your plan is to have solar power at 75 Chipotle locations in 2010. What does this have to do with healthy, farm-raised food?

Some years ago we were thinking about how our design has evolved. I wanted to make sure our philosophy about using great integrity in food (and changing the way people think about fast food) is also influenced by our buildings. Solar panels fit right into the program. With 75 this year, we will be the largest producer of solar power in the restaurant industry. We’ve changed our lighting package to one that takes about one-tenth of the watts to create a lumen; and we’ve changed to a grill that uses almost half the energy.

Your iPhone app allows users to find a location, order online and pay for their meal. Are your customers using it?

The iPhone app is great. I don’t know that it accounts for a lot of our sales, but it’s a great interface. For our regular customers who know how to use the line and know exactly what they want, they can put the order in, and when they get there it’s ready and paid for. Part of what I think is special about Chipotle is that a customer goes through the line and can pick and choose—not only according to taste but according to diet, like low-carb or low-fat. There are lots of combinations.

You’re getting ready to open your first location in London. What are the challenges of exporting the brand?

London should open in early May. So far there haven’t been any major obstacles. We found a great location in Soho on Charing Cross Road. We have sourced really great food. The kinds of sustainably raised foods available there are going to make our food with integrity mission much easier than it has been in the U.S.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure